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'When my father was 50, and I just 20, he said to me, for no particular reason, 'Life goes in so quickly'. I thought him full of self-pity and loathing... now I know just what he meant

The birth of his first granddaughter, Madeleine, and the arrival of his bus pass, may have turned Paul Hopkins' thoughts to mortality, but his New Year's resolution is still to stay at the top of his game

Circle of life: Paul Hopkins ponders getting older
Circle of life: Paul Hopkins ponders getting older
With his first born daughter Niamh in 1982
His baby granddaughter Madeleine

The cocoon of festive-induced stupor between Christmas and the New Year throws up many moments for reflection and self-censuring, not necessarily a good thing for the soul.

I find myself at my most reflective as, once more, a New Year is upon us. Another year, just like the one we have just left, or the year before that, or even before that again.

Though each brings its own surprises - and who knows what the New Year will bring - in some ways, the more things change, the more things stay the same, particularly at this stage in my own life, each year having a familiar feel to it, like growing into an old, well-worn favourite overcoat.

Speaking of growing, there was, for the first time, two, hitherto unfamiliar, spurts of growing, and both personal events - in a way the antithesis of each other.

My first grandchild came into the world in recent weeks and I was admitted to that growing elite of those with a Freedom Pass.

I am officially old. My beautiful Madeleine is testament to that. Life is panning out as it generally does. My gene is assured. Memories of me, hopefully, for another generation or two to reflect on at their Christmases with the ghosts of Christmas past.

When you're young, it's hard to envisage getting old. Now I am here, or at best, heading there. I hear that train a comin' and its shrill whistle increasingly stops me in my tracks, momentarily frozen with the fear of, and for, the future. Ultimately, my demise.

Seamus Heaney noted: "Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear." Not I, as such, but rather I fear missing out on life.

Today, people in their sixties seem, not necessarily young, just nicely mature. Hopefully, wise and empathetic. Sixties is the new forties. No, sixties is the sixties. It's just we are all living longer.

(According to the Office for National Statistics, the UK population is projected to continue growing, reaching over 74 million by 2039. The population in the UK is getting older, with 18% aged 65 and over and 2.4% aged 85 and over.)

But with living longer can come a failing ability to function and an increasing blip on society, on its young members in terms of care and cost.

My father, who lived until he was 80, used to say that life was "sweet no matter what". He had good health until the end. But the acorn does not always fall that close to the tree and our lifestyles are polar opposites.

For me, a cheap bottle of vodka under the bed and a handful of sleeping tablets seems preferable to catheters and cardiac arrhythmias.

It is romantic nonsense, perhaps, though I am a long-time advocate of voluntary euthanasia. In the end, though, I would probable be raging against the dying of the light.

It's not all doom and gloom, despite an inevitability about it all. I am in relatively good fettle. Have few regrets about life. I am a fine wine, like Frank Sinatra sang. I just don't wish to see the bottle drained anytime soon.

With the new one imminent, I have arrived at the state of death-consciousness - although, we cannot truly savour life without a regular awareness of extinction.

I acknowledge Nature's preference for a conclusion: there has been a beginning, so there has to be an end.

I am anxious of the run-up to death, because I have seen it with others, family and friends.

Despite my Freedom Pass, I feel much the same, but clearly I am not. I have entered an unexpected dimension; dealing with the next 20 years is the new challenge.

And, if there is to be that obligatory New Year resolution, then it has to be to act to stay on top of my game. The evidence is in for fitness.

Regular exercise has been associated with more health benefits than anything else known to mortal man.

Studies - some recent, some not - show that getting fit reduces the risk of some cancers, increases longevity, helps achieve and maintain weight loss, enhances mood, lowers blood pressure and even improves arthritis.

Mind you, it was the English philosopher and Zen Buddhist Alan Watts, whom I read avidly as a young man, who said that "tomorrow and plans for tomorrow have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present since it is in the present and only in the present that you live".

When my father was 50, and I just 20, he said to me one day, for no particular reason: "Life goes in so quickly".

I thought him full of self-pity and loathing. Now I know what he meant.

That is the cruel trick of ageing, of growing old.

Rich or poor, celebrity or no, we all turn out to be merely mortal.

Yet, as humans, we are capable of discussing everything under the sun, but we seldom, if ever, discuss in any meaningful way death, specifically our own deaths.

In my own life, much has been fulfilled and I am grateful for that. That I've made it thus far. There remains only to be accountable.

With the challenge of staying on form and of facing into the unknown, comes reward with the persistent smile of baby Madeleine Hopkins, a sentient being on the cusp of her own life.

I visit my grandchild for the first time next week, because she lives on the East Coast of the US. We have three months of living to catch up on. I hope to keep you updated.

And do you know that, though she shares both her father's and mother's good looks, I could swear I saw my own dear, departed mother in her when we WhatsApped each other the other day.

Belfast Telegraph


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