Except for a very small percentage of people, nobody wants to die. At least, not before having lived a full and satisfying life, and even then, when the end nears, many choose to hang on for as long as possible. It’s a strange thing to be aware of one’s mortality. So far as we understand it, no other creature on Earth is conscious of its life span, though for many survival and reproduction are the two principal biological imperatives. For some creatures reproduction is the only imperative, and once this has been achieved, survival becomes obsolete and their time here is done.
Humans, on the other hand, as with many social mammals, have found a means by which to make themselves useful beyond reproductive age. Our consciousness and sophisticated intelligence have also made reproduction itself a lifestyle choice rather than a necessity. However we choose to live our lives, we do so according to our own ideas of fulfilment, contentment and achievement. For some, it is work and sacrifice, for others, it is the pursuit of happiness, for some it is reproduction and providing for one’s children. And, of course, some humans find life too difficult, meaningless, complex or unpleasant and so choose to take their own lives irrespective of whether or not they have passed on their genes.
I value life a very great deal and, being an atheist, consider it to be all that I have. So far as I see it I am nothing but a bag of meat and a bunch of cells and my consciousness, the bafflingly complex software of billions of rapidly firing neurons. When I die, there will be nothing left beyond material remains and anything I may have produced that is worthy of preservation. So far as I see it, the only shot I have at immortality is to produce great art, and, I suppose, offspring. For the latter reason, I have long considered becoming a sperm donor. After all, if the real, underlying purpose off life is to pass on one’s genes, then surely the best way to distribute these most widely, without the unaffordable social and financial complications of fatherhood, is to impregnate as many women as possible. Ultimately, I decided against this course, though largely because I simply didn’t care enough to do so. The decision ultimately to have children will not be based on the desire to pass on my genes, but rather for the joys of parenthood and an unwillingness to miss out on this pivotal life experience.
As someone who has always been a keen history buff and who studied history at university for many years, including going to Cambridge to do a PhD in late Roman, early medieval Italian history, and as a weekly reader of New Scientist and someone fascinated by questions about the future, I would prefer to live for at least five hundred years, in order to see what happens and how many of my predictions come true. The future promises to be endlessly fascinating and the rapid geopolitical, technological and environmental developments are worthy of study in the longue durée. Five hundred years should just about satisfy my wish to see how current short and long-term trends unfold, and to witness how humans cope with the environmental consequences of their development. Considering I cannot quite manage five hundred years, without very sudden and dramatic discoveries in arresting the ageing process or, beyond that, some form of cryogenic freezing and rebooting in a rejuvenated body several centuries from now, I’d like at least to live for as long as is physically possible, whilst retaining my mental faculties.
In short, the last thing I want to do is die young. Many might suggest that is no longer possible at the age of thirty-nine! But after all, one is only as young as, well… we know how that one goes. It was, therefore, a great relief to me when I visited my most excellent doctor this morning to be informed that my chest and lung x-rays showed nothing of concern whatsoever. For the last three months I’ve suffered muscular pain and discomfort in my chest and shoulder area, and it has, at times, been difficult to pinpoint the source of this pain. To begin with, I thought it might be my all too vigorous copulation style; secondly, I blamed my keen and regular use of barbells to buff myself up. Ultimately, I began to fear that the source of the pain was deeper than these possible structural causes, and once the idea had gotten into my head that the source of discomfort might be my heart or lungs, the paranoia grew into a dreadful fear.
It is worth pointing out that I no longer smoke cigarettes and have not smoked a single one since April 2007. I have, however, smoked a good few joints in the intervening period and, anyway, lung cancer can strike many years after quitting smoking. So there was no reason to feel complacent on this front, and once the thought had entered my head, I began to fear that I was about to pay the ultimate price for the follies of youth.
I have often experienced such paranoia about possible catastrophic health problems in the past. In late 2010, I became convinced that I had something very seriously wrong inside my head, when for three to four months I suffered from constant headaches, sore, dry eyes and dizziness. I visited five doctors and was not at all impressed with their attempts to identify or diagnose the source of the problem. It was the fifth doctor, now my current regular, who had no hesitation in sending me for a CT scan (I still can’t believe it took this long!) which determined that it was, in fact, a cyst in my sinuses. When he read the report of the scan in the office, and, nodding and frowning said “Mmmm, there’s definitely a lot going on there,” I thought I was doomed and broke into a cold sweat. For, perhaps twenty seconds, all the fear and paranoia that had built up in preceding months reached a terrible peak and I genuinely believed I was about to be told I had a brain tumour. Once he had made sense of the jargon in the radiologist’s report, however, Dr Lam was very quick to reassure me that all was well. A most glorious sense of relief washed over me. I wasn’t, after all, going to fucking die! I was going to live!
For the last month I’ve been living with a similar gnawing feeling; that really something awful was going on inside my body and my time on this Earth was about to draw to a premature close. It was quite overwhelming at times, and indeed, I would have dizzy spells and moments of desperation as the feeling congealed inside and, naively convinced, I asked myself “What else could it be? It must be my lungs.” Well, that is yet to be determined, when I take the next step, in seeing a sports medicine specialist at the University of Sydney, but the good news is that it ain’t lung cancer and is most likely, as originally suspected, a structural, muscular problem.
You may wonder why I took so long to confirm this and have x-rays done. The reason, I suppose, was that a part of me needed to believe I was just being paranoid and I tried to reassure myself that it really was nothing serious. There was also a part of me that did not wish to face the truth if there was something serious amiss; this despite the fact that were something seriously wrong, the sooner it was identified and addressed the better. It was also, in part, because I knew that my worst fears about my health were often misplaced, as on the occasion when my fears of testicular cancer resolved instead into a diagnosis of epididymitis; not a pleasant condition, but certainly not fatal! As was the case with my nuts, and, indeed, the cyst in my sinuses, there have been several other occasions when I thought for certain I was dying. Before leaving for Europe in 1996, for example, when I’d been plagued by a mysterious pain in my side for months, and again in 2005, when I suffered long dizzy spells and bouts of blurred vision for several weeks. On both occasions these turned out to be posture-related, and I’m now beginning to wonder if this latest issue is not also posture related, though I have for a long while used an ergonomic chair and sat upright and straight-backed at my desk.
I hope that soon this problem will be solved, and I can get back to lifting weights (other important pleasures have not been curtailed). For now, however, I will simply revel in having seen off the worst-case scenario and return to looking forward to a long and fruitful life, ideally, several centuries long.
By way of conclusion, I would like to present a half-completed poem. It was written in 2005 during my tenure at “Cornieworld #1”, when the dizziness I was experiencing led me to believe that something was seriously wrong with me. When, after seeing a couple of doctors and ultimately consulting a physio, I realised that I wasn’t, in fact, dying, I sat down to write “For three weeks I thought I was dying.” I never completed it satisfactorily and am unlikely to do so, so I present it now in its unpolished form.
Live long and prosper!
For three weeks I thought I was dying…
For three weeks I thought I was dying.
The misunderstood stink of sleeplessness;
greasy sweats born of fear and imagined
tumours within this corrupt, greying vehicle
still desperately far from success.
The horizon became naught but wasted grafting
with the falling short suggested in my wrenching
abdomen, aching head and blood wisps
snaking from a stool. A pallor which even
hard running could evince, a dizziness growing
and solemn, I was convinced.
Til, on a day away from vulgar work I walked
afraid for projects long assured, en route
to seek the testing proof across the arching
concrete bridge. Humidity smeared my skin while spring
bustled in my chest and the looseness,
transported from the earthworms to my joints,
watered my swoon to encourage a distant lifting
from sharp displeasure at the nape, the protest
and the query of my body yet to answer
for betrayals. Taunted by the semblance
of a lifespan, I pressed on, assured I carried
some illness come from the burrows, come
from some lodger born of me. I tottered amongst
the students as though sunstruck and recalled
a film wherein a thirsting bumpkin
staggered on a rippling road; recalled a youth
I then thought was old – outside this very building!
The coming dim this doctor must soon name
– I don’t doubt I’ve mouthed it in some searching,
prussic forecast – has ensured this clarity
and the poignance of each nostalgic yearn.
Outwardly now, a sunset hacienda, bloody again
in my fearful cheeks and lips, roaming forward,
pursed against the ague, aghast at atoms in disjunction.
The lion’s share lies still ahead, my organs
take me there! That night, unfurrowed, though as yet in limbo
I walked down to the sinking docks. High across
the water stood a straddling bridge, wired and search-lit,
streaked and roaring, with two great striving concrete towers.
And about these, trailing their dusty orbits,
five hundred seagulls fed on a million moths.