Belfast Telegraph

Lessons on living from a man on the brink of death

By Christina Patterson

It isn't all that often that we hear from someone who will soon be dead. Last week, however, we did just that. On the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, we saw an interview with a man who used to be quite solid, but who's now very, very thin.

The man was Philip Gould. He was one of the people who helped get Labour elected in 1997 and then helped get it elected again.

He's still full of ideas about what Labour should do to get re-elected, but he won't be able to do that much about it, because he is, according to his doctors, down to his last few weeks.

He was, he told Marr, "in a death zone", a place where "there was such an intensity" and "such a power". This, he said, was "apparently normal".

And so, he said, even though he'd rather "not be in that position", it was "the most extraordinary" time of his life.

You could see from the fire in his eyes that these weren't empty words.

You could also see that whatever he was feeling now was something that was bringing a certain amount of sadness, but also an electric joy.

We don't often see that electric joy, and we certainly don't often see it on TV, because we don't often get to hear from people who are down to their last few weeks.

It's strange we don't, because an awful lot of people have got cancer. In the Western world, we seem to be getting better and better at getting cancer and we're still much better at getting it than people in the developing world.

Denmark, which usually tops the global league tables in things like happiness, also tops the table for rates of cancer among women. We, who don't do too well on happiness and equality, come in at number 12.

We're getting better at treating it, perhaps because we're getting so much practise, but we're also getting better at causing it. We don't know if it's the food, or the water, or the weather, or the Wi-Fi, but more and more of us are getting cancer every day.

The figure, in fact, is one in three. One in three is a common life event, like a wedding, or a birth, or a cold. But, although people talk a lot about getting married, or having a baby, and men talk a lot about having a cold, they don't talk all that much about getting cancer.

One in three means we all know people who have it, and if we don't now, we soon will. Some of those people will be old, but quite a few of them won't.

In the West, we all think we're entitled to our three score and 10. What we forget is that the mortality rate - East and West - is always 100%.

"I thought," Gould said in another interview last week, "this is what they mean by the reckoning." When the interviewer asked if he would swap the intensity of the "death zone" for another 10 years of life, he said he wouldn't. "This," he said, "is where I should be."

What he was saying wasn't just Philip Larkin's message, in An Arundel Tomb, that 'What will survive of us is love'. It wasn't just Larkin's message, from Aubade, that 'Being brave / lets no one off the grave' and that 'Death is no different whined at than withstood'.

It was that death in itself is a kind of blessing. Not because of the annihilation, but because of the brilliant, piercing joy it brings to life.

We need to talk more about death. We need to be reminded of this miracle we wake up to every day.

When you get cancer - as I have done, twice - you can look at a traffic-jam and think that you've never seen anything more beautiful.

We need to be reminded, by the people around us all the time, of the real meaning of life. But I can tell you now: the meaning of life is life itself.

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