‘Wasn’t he lucky to go like that? Feet washed. A few pints. Off to sleep’

Michael Harding: In awe of old people so detached from the world they could laugh at the frenzy of it all

Coming up to the event he was stressed at the thought of taking his shoes and socks off and waiting at the altar for the parish priest. Photograph: Getty Images

Coming up to the event he was stressed at the thought of taking his shoes and socks off and waiting at the altar for the parish priest. Photograph: Getty Images

 

I wasn’t going to let the cat in. I was busy working. But his attention was on me. He wanted me to open the door so he could sit in an armchair by the stove. Then he got distracted by a fly crossing the cement step. His paw hovered over the fly. The paw dropped. But the fly was already gone. Having good all-round vision the fly knew the paw was as potentially devastating as an American bomb might be to a donkey in Afghanistan, so he got airborne faster than the cat could blink.

I suppose the tragedy for Afghani donkeys is that they don’t have wings.

When the fly was gone the cat returned his attention to me on the other side of the glass. His mouth opened as he pleaded, though I heard nothing. The double glazed glass is soundproof.

“I’m in love,” I might blabber. And an old man would smile at me and say, “That will pass.”

I suppose the cat is at his most authentic when he plays with a fly, obeying his impulse to hunt and satisfy his personal curiosity.

 And I am also at my most authentic when I sit and watch the world and the flies go by. I acknowledge that death is certain and life is passing, but so what? 

Which is not an insight I gleaned either from Buddhist philosophy or psychotherapy. It’s a wisdom I absorbed gradually over years from old people who sat at their fires and were so detached from the world that they could laugh at the frenzy of it all. They would listen to me when I was young with unfocused nostalgia.

“I’m in love,” I might blabber. And an old man would smile at me and say, “That will pass.”

Dainty handfuls of water

Recently I heard of a man who got his feet washed in Holy Week. The idea of washing feet in the middle of Mass on a Thursday evening before Easter was new to him. But he had a niece who distributes Communion so he agreed. Coming up to the event he was stressed at the thought of taking his shoes and socks off and waiting at the altar for the parish priest, a man he had never warmed to, dropping dainty handfuls of water on his toes and then dabbing the foot dry with a towel.

Recently I heard of a man in his 80s who got an urge to forage in the attic for old photographs one day.  He spent hours gazing people who fought in the first World

But he endured it nonetheless, and afterwards was seen enjoying a pint in a bar in town, before he went home, got into bed, fell asleep and never woke up.

“Wasn’t he lucky to go like that?” a friend observed. “Feet washed. A few pints. And then off to sleep.”

“No he wasn’t lucky,” I argued, “because he didn’t know he was going to die.”

My friend disagreed. “He might have seen death coming and that might have been why he went to bed early,” he declared.

I didn’t dismiss this possibility because when I was a student I studied Marie Louise von Franz’s wonderful essay On Dreams and Death which applied Jungian analysis to make plausible the notion that the human psyche can occasionally cast its shadow into the future.

A turn in his sleep

And recently I heard of a man in his 80s who got an urge to forage in the attic for old photographs one day.  He spent hours looking through scrap books and albums, gazing at long dead uncles and people who fought in the first World, and men who were blacksmiths at the turn of the 20th century and thought that the motor car was an invention that would hardly last. Until eventually he found an unframed photo of his wedding day.

“We should have this framed,” he said to his wife of more than 50 years.

Two nights later he took a turn in his sleep which is how his wife described it on the phone to her son, who lived down the road, but by the time the son’s car was in the backyard the turn was over and the man was dead.

He was a simple man who loved his family, worked hard and was blessed with a long life. I called to him once when he was minding a grandchild in the kitchen. He rolled a tiny piece of the Leitrim Observer into a ball and tied a length of string around it, and dangled the ball in front of the cat, and the cat played with the paper and the old man smiled. And I was thinking of him again recently, as I opened the glass door of my studio to let the cat in, so that we both could sit down to the fire for another afternoon and leave the frenzied world at a healthy distance.

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