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Why it took a brush with death to make me want to live again

By Mary Kenny

A few weeks ago - around about July 20 - I thought I was going to die. Soon. Pronto. Any moment now. It was an alarming few days prompted by a number of things.

Every now and again I get a chest infection, having a weakness in "the bronchials", due to the wages of sin, that is, a 35-year addiction to Gitane cigarettes.

No, I don't rush to take antibiotics because I've been convinced of the argument that you shouldn't take this medication until you seriously need it, and their overuse is breeding greater superbugs. I just wheeze, cough up a great deal of green stuff, and sweat like a swine. And there's breathlessness.

But on this particular day, I thought: I can't take another breath. I'm going to die. That's it. Sin a bhfuil. Call for the Last Rites.

I'm a great believer in the Last Rites, not just for reasons of faith, but because that's the way a diva should die. (I felt it was terribly feeble of the Catholic church to alter the wonderfully dramatic Extreme Unction to the Sacrament for the Sick.)

I rushed around to the solicitor and signed a more up-to-date copy of my will, which, despite several alterations, is still a bit of a shambles.

I took out my cheque book – yes, I'm still devoted to the quaint old cheque book – and settled any outstanding bills. I rushed around to the undertaker and pre-paid my funeral in advance.

I wrote a couple of messages to my sons, which were coded valedictions.

Actually, I'm compressing events a little here, because I had been in the process of sorting out funeral plans the previous two weeks. I was rather peeved to discover that the kind of funeral I'd want – a Joycean horse-drawn hearse with black plumes and a floral decoration saying "Mother" ("Mum", on a hearse, is a bit common, don't you think?) – would cost well in excess of €10,000. So for the moment, I had to settle for a more prosaic choice.

"If the Almighty spares me," I told the undertaker, who was suitably sombre, "I might up the style a bit, from the basics." Perhaps the debate in the House of Lords at Westminster, which received much attention generally, about assisted dying, turned my thoughts towards what Simone de Beauvoir so poetically called "la ceremonie des adieux".

Everyone seemed to be talking about departing this world, whether through the due process of nature taking its course, or the deliberate option of naming a day and a time; or perhaps taking a flight to Switzerland – although no diva would, surely, wish to die in a dreary Swiss clinic adorned with beige curtains.

Truly, the scenario recalls dear Oscar Wilde's last words to the ghastly wallpaper in his cheap French hotel: "One of us has to go."

You know how it is when you're pregnant – suddenly, every woman you see seems pregnant too?

It seems to be the same with the valedictory mood. When thoughts turn to death, death appears everywhere.

A street mime artist, blackly gowned as the Grim Reaper, crosses my path at a pavement entertainment. I take up an old book of poetry and flick through it, and it opens at Emily Dickinson: "Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me ..." I turn the pages and, annoyingly, it's Dylan Thomas: "Do not go gentle into that good night? Rage, rage against the dying of the light?" – a counsel he gave the world at the ripe old age of 37.

I lay down on the bed and tried to do some breathing exercises. I fell asleep, and later awoke: still alive.

It was a strange episode because when I woke up it was a beautiful summer evening, and I felt filled with a sense of the rapture of life and a feeling that we should appreciate every single moment that we live.

The countryside is stunning. The birds sing. People, mostly, are friendly and kind. I must stop grumbling about my circumstances, which I often do, because I have the care of my invalid husband, and that is a big responsibility. But how often must he think about impending death? He doesn't speak about it, but he must dwell on it constantly.

For centuries, maybe millennia, the philosophers have said that it is salutary to think about death regularly, because reflecting on death makes us appreciate life.

Marcus Aurelius is full of this stuff – you're here today, and you'll be gone tomorrow, he warns, so appreciate everything – and the Cistercians are enjoined to dig a little of their graves each day.

And is death not all around us – in the heart-scorching events in the Middle East, and among our families, friends and companions who are stricken with a fatal illness? And of course, it must come to us all, late or soon.

The chest infection was serious enough – thank you, it has now abated – although the sensation of hovering death also had an element of hysteria and of the panic attack.

And yet, funnily, it did me the world of good.

I resolved not to fuss over small inconveniences or daily frustrations – in the sum of things, what does it matter if there's a tailback of three hours on the motorway, you've lost your mobile phone, or some brat has vandalised the wing mirrors on your car?

La vita e bella – life is beautiful, full of joy, music and possibilities, and we should be thankful we're alive this day. To every thing there is a purpose under heaven.

Belfast Telegraph


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