Facing Death

h/t John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts, for an article in The Independent from a few years ago from Havi Carel, a philosopher with a rare, and at the time, recently diagnosed, disease. There are lots of philosophical reflections on disease and death, of course, and for another first-person reflection, this one from one of my close friends, Susan Babbitt, see her “This I Believe” essay for CBC, “Simplicity and Silence” from around the same time as Carel’s.

So, how long have you got?” The first time I was asked this question, I was dumbstruck. The horror of it, and the casualness with which it was asked, was too incongruous for words. Was it simply curiosity? Ignorance? A clumsy attempt to “connect” with me? What else could motivate someone to ask such a horrific question? Yet, it’s a question I have been asked again and again – by friends, acquaintances, even strangers who have seen me sitting in a café with an oxygen cylinder beside my feet.

Once you are ill, I realise, you become fair game. You slide down an implicit social ladder. Others begin to perceive you as weak and unimportant, an object of pity and fascination. In asking: “How long have you got,” they compress all their horror, anxiety, pity, and relief that this is someone else’s story. How else to explain how people find the obtuseness and cruelty to ask you – in so many words – “When are you going to die?”

I am not impressed. I feel like screaming like that old lady on The Catherine Tate Show: “What a fucking liberty!” To the people who really piss me off, I quote the figure from Wikipedia: five years. I watch them deflate, shoulders sagging, thinking: “How awful. Gosh, I’m glad it’s not me.”

To others, I provide the official figure: 10 years. For the full story, see The Independent.

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