the old friend

Death is the unashamed old friend who passes by at the inopportune moment. As we have always known her, she has with us the somewhat harsh familiarity of childhood friendships. She enters without knocking. Without always having the politeness to be announced. We don’t know which is better. Let it pass in a breeze. Or that she invites herself to our house for a long stay.

My mother, who hated death and everything like it ever since she took away her great love – my father – left in an instant, without warning, one day in September. The aneurysm ruptured like a worn thread. She who loved life, nothing but life, the roses in the garden, the novels of Sagan, the spirit of Guitry, the insolence of children, jumped into death as one goes to dance.

Her cousin Geneviève, my godmother, died quite differently. Diseases came together to put out the flame. When I went to see her, in her apartment in Vernon, the door was ajar. She was in her bed, no thicker than a book. I took her hand. We spoke in near silence. We told each other our love. I confided to him my regret for not having always been very present. Her voice was peaceful even when she complained that God didn’t come for her faster. The heartburn, cutting him off from life, it all seemed to have faded away. And I can say today that those hours spent with her were among the happiest of my life.

As were those moments when, with my three daughters, we cried, like a block of the same flesh, the marvelous grandmother who called them her “suns” and her “joys”.

Death, the manner of dying, it will never be up to the legislators or anyone else to tell us what it should look like. It is our living responsibility and our mortal adventure to learn to live with the unwanted old friend. What do we put in our minds, hearts and souls to face him?

In “Nothing as a gift” (extract of Of death without exaggerating), Wislawa Szymborska writes that everything in our life is borrowed. We are in debt “up to the ears” : our heart is in pledge, our liver, each of our fingers, each parcel of our skin. There is not an eyelash, not the slightest stalk that we will keep forever. She spins the metaphor of the debt to be repaid. She concludes her poem by saying that she no longer remembers where, when, or why she authorized the opening of this account: “To oppose it / it’s called a soul. / And it’s the only asset / that the register ignores”.

A soul ! The big word is pronounced. The big word that we no longer want to hear. Or lip service. With notices and warnings. The soul: everything we set up against the evidence of death. Our answer to the old friend who whispers to us that life is vanity or nothingness. The soul: everything that death can never take from us.

Death is the question we answer at every moment by living better adjusted to what does not die: love, beauty, justice, joy, fraternity, hope. No one dictates or administers this to us. We find out. Or if we don’t discover it, it’s because we haven’t lived. We will not have taken the old friend, the annoying old lady, seriously.

We will be able to lessen the pain and no one will be able to argue that it is not necessary. But there is pain, loss, wrenching, separation that no one has the right to deprive us of. Because we are souls and not problems to be managed.

In the emergency of the pandemic, we have left dead bodies to be zipped up in plastic bags and deprived of the most basic rites of speech or prayer. Soon we are promised a painless, controlled death. With the word of dignity brandished as proof. We are going to see the dignitaries of the society of the spectacle parade at the bar, crowned with their life of simulacrum: we are going to ask the shadows of the cave to explain to us what our truth is.

The truth is that our society is becoming monstrous. As in the worst nightmares, it reverses the order of values: it proposes to the doctor not to cure or soothe suffering, but to precipitate, “on demand”, the hour of death.

This death which is not a self-service or an option at the bottom of a contract, but the mystery par excellence, the big meeting not to be missed under any circumstances. In his Intimate notes, Marie Noël bequeaths us a viaticum to lift all fears: she whispers to us that all that we have done that is beautiful, just, noble in life will one day come to our aid. They are our angels, she said, “our inhabitants of heart who will save our soul in danger on a road without light”.

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the old friend

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