For all of them, it started much as it will start for you: a strangely persistent itch at the back of the head, a discomfort on the left side, a lump fingered in the shower. Something it became impossible to ignore.
Then would have come the trip to the doctor, the dropped voices and the news, which - despite all the evidence - continues to surprise us all, to seem like an error, a clerical mistake, an aberration.
After I received my diagnosis, I cried every day.
Some submit at once, a few vow to fight what science knows will never be vanquished:
When I first heard, I said we’re going to fight this, we’re going to beat this…
We need to spend time with those who are about to die. Thank goodness for Andrew George, who took his camera into the hospices and hospitals we otherwise never dare to visit.
It’s a particular advantage that these are very unremarkable people, it reduces the barriers between them and us. We feel the continuity between our situation and theirs. Their story will be ours, an idea that remains almost impossible to admit to ourselves and hold in consciousness through the rounds of ordinary distractions and commitments.
These are the people you don’t particularly notice: the woman who works in the shop you rarely go into. The guy who works in the next office block. The woman who does the stationery. But with death close, they have something to say to all of us. Their words become like those of the prophets; they have gone ahead of us and have momentous things to report. These people, none of whom has more than a few days left to live, speak with the clarity and lack of all pretensions of the damned.
You have a one way ticket, don’t waste it.
The dying are the great appreciators: they notice the value of the sunshine on a spring afternoon, a few minutes with a grandchild, another breath… And they know what spoilt ingrates we are, not stopping to register the wonder of every passing minute. They were once like us of course. They wasted decades but now they are in a position to know of their folly and warn us of our own.
There’s so many things to enjoy and we don’t enjoy them.
It is a time for confession and for admissions of weakness. There is no occasion for pride. You can admit all that went wrong, the evasions, cowardice, bitterness and betrayals that are the hidden mortar of every life.
Even though my ex-wife remarried and loved another man, I still love her.
The things that they love most have no connection with the assumed hierarchies of the competitive world. Childhood is always mentioned, the time when death had no presence yet, when there were only nightmares that could be comforted away. Now the nightmares have colonised the days. This is worse than any ghost or zombie one could have dreamt of.
Some of my favourite times were as kids; me and my brothers used to play baseball and my mom would join us.
We may want to cry, for them and of course, as it should be, for us.
Death refashions ambition, it leads us to attach new value to things we hardly would have thought of as goals of any kind.
I would love to be seventy years old.
We will leave very few traces. Our monuments are shockingly small, but all the more genuine and heartbreaking for being so. We can count ourselves lucky for living on in the hearts of a few for half a decade or so.
I’ll be remembered for my red beet jam and quilting…
Every age should be in search of effective ways to keep death in mind. Once we would look at skulls or at martyrs, hourglasses or withered flowers. Now we can accompany a photographer into those hospices that we only ever dimly clock on our journeys to work. The task of art is to give us access to experiences it is otherwise hard to get hold of and render their moral vivid in our distracted imaginations.
The images are sad but not depressing. Rather than try to crush us with the remembrance of death, they have an unexpected joyful quality. They are on the side of life, they give us new determination to rearrange our values and appreciate what is being neglected.
It no longer matters quite so much who we squabbled with and what our anxieties may currently be about. We are set free from things that shouldn’t constrain us in the first place: fears, wrong preoccupations, false values.
Unfortunately, we’ll forget the wisdom on offer here within hours. We’ll be back to losing perspective and forgetting to notice the sunshine. We continuously need the resources of art to renew our connection with the unbearable but deeply necessary truths.
Alain de Botton