In his book Without Feathers Woody Allen has a line that has become one of his most famous quips: "It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens." Like all the best humour, the joke is accompanied by a sense of recognition.
It is almost an article of faith for people to say that, far from fearing death, they are reconciled to it. But Allen’s joke hits on an uncomfortable truth. Death is rarely a straightforward business. For all we know that we must depart this life, we rarely contemplate the way in which we might go.
For Allen, on the other hand, it’s not just the possibility of oblivion that worries him. He implicitly acknowledges that, before we go, we may have to experience moments – or perhaps years – that are deeply unpleasant, distressing or painful.
Allen has spent much of his career talking about death, or at least joking about it. The rest of us avoid talking about the prospect and process of dying until it is unavoidable. Our natural inclination is to focus on the positive, in conversation at least. Going by my own experience of bereavement, we are not keen to talk openly about dying.
This is where literature normally comes in. The written word, like any great art, can allow us to process complex or difficult subjects, illuminating truths in a way no other field of endeavour can do. As Noam Chomsky has said, we can "learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology". You could say the same about poetry, autobiography or, possibly, the short phrase that essentially constituted the last words of my father, Seamus Heaney.
As I know from his case, when writers are confronted with the probability of death they can come up with a memorable valediction. In his instance it was two words in Latin, Noli timere, which translate as "Don't be afraid".
A last week
A week before my father wrote the phrase it was unthinkable that he would be in such a position. Far from being poorly, he had been out for dinner with a close friend, only to stumble on steps as he left the restaurant. He hit his head and was taken to hospital, where he was kept for observation. When his temperature remained stubbornly high the doctors decided that he should stay on while they figured out what was wrong.
There was no hint of what was to come. When I first visited him at St Vincent’s hospital, in Dublin, he was in good form, catching up on his reading and chatting with nurses and doctors. If he was uneasy he didn’t say it to me. Nor I to him.
But I was more worried than I admitted, even to myself. That night I woke up with a jolt after dreaming that I had received a phone call with bad news. I don’t believe that this was an omen, but it brought my anxiety into sharp relief.
Until then the body of literature dealing with the experience of death had held little interest for me. But I was aware of a small but high-profile body of work on the subject, most notably Joan Didion's two heart-rending volumes of memoir: The Year of Magical Thinking, from 2005, about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne; and Blue Nights, her unwanted companion volume from 2011, about the passing of her daughter, Quintana.
Both books were acclaimed, and both were bestsellers; The Year of Magical Thinking was even turned into a Broadway play.
In the developed world, modern medicine has allowed us live longer, and has also given us more time to die. As the writer and surgeon Atul Gawande notes in his brilliant but uncomfortable book Being Mortal, "dying was typically a more precipitous process" in the past.
Today, longer end-of-life scenarios have also given rise to another subgenre, which can be crudely termed the terminal-illness memoir. These often remarkable pieces of testament carry the force of first-hand experience. In their writings about having cancer, the journalists John Diamond and Christopher Hitchens deal with the fact of their mortality even as their lives go into a tailspin.
After being diagnosed with throat cancer in 1997, Diamond began a candid newspaper diary about his illness, which he continued long after he had lost the power of speech – nearly until his death, in 2001. The uncertain but deeply human tone of his writing is summed up by the subtitle of his book on the subject, C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too.
The habitually pugnacious Hitchens was, unsurprisingly, more robust in raging against the dying of the light. In his posthumous volume Mortality he is unwavering in his atheism, frank about his suffering and blackly comic in his observations: "When you fall ill, people send you CDs. Very often these are by Leonard Cohen. "
Although Hitchens approaches his death with characteristic defiance, the portrait he paints is not a hopeful one. Still, like Diamond’s, his account has an unvarnished quality that reminds us that we have to deal with the inescapable fact of death as best we can.
For better or worse, Hitchens and Diamond had the time to reflect on their fate. My father, on the other hand, learned the seriousness of his condition only two days before his death. After being told that the doctors had detected a “split aorta”, we didn’t discuss the implications at any great length. But Dad soberly admitted that the diagnosis was “quite serious”.
When it became clear that he’d have to undergo a risky operation I still danced around using the word “death” when talking to him, much less muse on the possibility that he might not survive.
A last night
On my last evening with him, just before he was transferred to Blackrock Clinic, I spoke to him about pretty much anything except what was about to happen, making lame jokes to distract from the almost unreal air that prevailed. I hugged him as I left – not our usual farewell – but tried not to think about the possible finality of the gesture.
If we avoid such thoughts it may be down to losing our sense of death as the one certain fact of life. Since Edward Jenner discovered vaccination our attitude to death has slowly changed. Once an ever-present, seemingly random threat, it is now regarded almost as a preventable accident. Its presence in our culture, at least as a fact of everyday life, has lessened.
In fact, one of the best books to deal with death as a natural event is for children. In EB White's classic Charlotte's Web the eponymous spider helps a pig escape the abattoir even as her own life cycle draws to a close. As a way of gently introducing children to the concept of loss Charlotte's Web is without parallel.
But for a novel with an unflinching eye for how we now die Philip Roth's 2006 novel Everyman stands out. Roth follows his nameless protagonist's brushes with death down the years, which inevitably grow closer and more frequent with the passage of time. His is a bleak outlook. As his ailments grow everything else is dwarfed, as "eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story".
Roth's descriptions of getting older have a bracing honesty, as does his dread of dying. Ultimately, however, the tone is one of irredeemable despair. As an example of the artist's duty to be true to oneself Everyman is peerless. Those seeking solace at a difficult time might want to look elsewhere, however.
Roth discounts the sense that death is anything other than a void to be feared. But while death is obviously not something that writers embrace any more than anyone else does, its imminence can concentrate the mind, with remarkable results.
A life in the mind
When the gifted English historian
was struck with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, in 2008, it left him a quadriplegic, but, if anything, sharpened his formidable intellect.
Unable to move, Judt spent his sleepless nights scrolling through his life and ideas as a survival method, composing startling essays that he memorised using the titular mnemonic device of his posthumous collection, The Memory Chalet.
Judt is forthright about what he is enduring and about what will soon follow. “Loss is loss, and nothing is gained by calling it by a nicer name. My nights are intriguing; but I could do without them.”
Writing about his fate with such candour only adds to the impact, however. Producing such astonishing work in such grim circumstances is, almost despite itself, a life-affirming action.
Similarly, the Australian writer and broadcaster Clive James has been slowly dying from serious illness for the past five years. Rather than fade away James has been determined to go out in a spectacular blaze, writing at a prodigious rate.
It is in his poetry, James's first love, that he has most evocatively dealt with his slow demise. His verse on the theme, collected in Sentenced to Life, are elegiac while bluntly acknowledging that his time is nearly up.
His haunting poem Japanese Maple was an internet sensation after it was published in the New Yorker. Counterpointing the vibrancy of the tree's colours with James's own waning energy, it is full of longing for "a world that shone / So brightly at the last, and then was gone". It is heartbreakingly honest while avoiding Roth's forlorn tone.
This is the kind of wisdom that we look to writers for. And I still wonder what my father might have written had he more time to contemplate his fate.
Instead the end was quick. On the morning of the operation my father sent a text to my mother that ended with the instruction Noli timere. This wasn't as portentous as it seems: he frequently used Latin as conversational shorthand. My mother forwarded me the text when she received it; I only spotted it when she phoned to tell me to get to the hospital. He had died on his way to surgery, shortly after composing the message.
We were devastated, but we seized on his final words as a kind of lifebuoy. It seemed to us that he had encapsulated the swirl of emotion, uncertainty and fear he was facing at the end, and articulated it in a restrained yet inspiring way.
These last words went viral after I read them at the funeral. In the weeks that followed they were parsed in articles and used as a shorthand for hope, most notably in Maser’s giant graffito, in English, on South Richmond Street in Dublin.
My father had done what writers do best: boiled down our anxieties and fears in a way that makes sense. His words have certainly helped me since his death.
Likewise, Judt, James and Didion are shot through with the element that defines great art: they speak truths that the rest of us recognise but are unable to articulate.
As for whether even the greatest art can ever really equip us for our own death, we cannot know the answer until too late. But at least these writers have left us a glimpse of what may lie ahead.
This is an edited version of the Mary Holland Commemorative Lecture, given at the Forum for End of Life in Ireland,thinkahead.ie