When your time is up, I hope you drop like the dead donkey
The sooner we realise we are all going to die the better – it gives us time to get used to the idea
‘It took the death of a neighbour down the road when I was in my 20s to make me realise that one day I myself would die.’ Photograph: iStock
The first time I experienced death as real was when I watched a donkey being put down at the crossroads beside the farm I grew up in.
I was probably about seven or eight at the time. The donkey had been around for a few days and nobody knew where she had come from.
Somebody got in touch with somebody and a man came out from Naas to deal with the situation. He must have come to our house first because I remember following him up to the crossroads.
He stopped in front of the donkey and quietly took the humane killer, as it is called, out of a bag. This instrument is like a gun that drives a spike into the brain. He patted the donkey’s head, put the humane killer against her forehead, and killed her.
I’ve always remembered that the donkey was dead when she hit the ground.
I don’t know what happened next. I suppose the man went off, that I inspected the donkey, that the kennels of the Kildare Hunt took her away to feed hounds. That was how we got rid of dead cattle and other large animals.
Spread a tablecloth by the graveside, bring a picnic basket with the cucumber sandwiches, the homemade apple tart, the wine and the lemonade and enjoy
I was no stranger to animals dying, and every year we killed turkeys for the Christmas market. I was able to approach these deaths in a pragmatic manner.
What had really struck me about the donkey was that she died as she fell. I had never realised how quickly life could disappear.
Shortly after the death of the donkey, I found two white candles wrapped up inside a drawer in a sideboard in our gloomy sitting room.
I immediately assumed the candles were for use when either of my parents died.
In all probability, the candles had been put aside for a power cut but, as I say, the room was gloomy. Also, the sideboard has come from a priest’s house in Allenwood where, some years previously, a maidservant was possessed by the Devil. She had had to be exorcised to stop her breaking plates and furniture and terrifying the priest. We called the sideboard “the Devil’s sideboard” and we imagined Satan was inside.
Gloomiest possible conclusion
So it’s understandable I came to the gloomiest possible conclusion.
But that realisation – and I still recall the chill of it – was about the death of other people. It took the death of a neighbour down the road when I was in my 20s to make me realise that one day I myself would die.
This realisation comes to everybody sooner or later and I think sooner is better than later. It gives you time to get used to the idea. It becomes like a shadow, sometimes behind you and sometimes in front of you but you get used to it. I suspect if it comes too late in life it can hit hard, shattering your protective illusion that death happens to the rest of humanity but not to you.
I was led to these thoughts by Laura Kennedy’s recent article in The Irish Times in which she advised that the inevitability of death should motivate us to get on (within reason) with what we want to do.
I agree with her and I would add two points. First, it’s okay to be afraid of dying because to be unafraid of dying is not natural.
Second, if you want to get more out of life, remember that you don’t have to go skydiving, mountain-climbing or jet-skiing unless you want to. For some, going to the movies once a week would make a really big difference to their quality of life. For others, to make a difference, they might have to sail around the world. One type of person is not better than another type of person.
So spread a tablecloth by the graveside, bring a picnic basket with the cucumber sandwiches, the homemade apple tart, the wine and the lemonade and enjoy. And when the time comes I wish you as quick a step out of this world as the donkey had.
Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email firstname.lastname@example.org