How to be old—we're all learning

How we talk about death

English Dance of Death. You gotta laugh.

 

In which I look back over the relationship of Death and me, see a pattern, and get overly personal.

 

Me and Death

“I can’t wait to die!” I was about seven when I horrified my mother Celia with this thrilling idea. “Because it’ll be such a great adventure! I can’t wait to see what happens!”

A happy, normal little girl

“I can’t wait” didn’t mean that I really was in a hurry to die. I wasn’t that sort of kid. On the contrary, my personality was summed up for all time by a family carer who knew me very well:

“I can’t believe it was Rachel who became a writer. She was just a happy, normal little girl who used to blow her nose on the sheets.”

For this morbid childhood fascination, you could blame the Anglican church or my career choices. One of my ambitions was to be an explorer in deepest Africa and I saw death as the ultimate uncharted territory.

 

Death of an aunt

Death had touched our family already, which was perhaps another reason for Celia’s horror at my casual regard for death. Our four grandparents were very much alive, but Celia’s sister Lesley died of tuberculosis in her thirties. Her story was heartbreaking: she was young and bright and dramatically beautiful with a dashing RAF officer husband and a baby girl as cute as Sailor Girl.

Aunty Lesley’s tragedy fascinated me at an impressionable age, and I would visualise my family and fans weeping around my deathbed saying how beautiful and clever and above all how saintly I had been and oh the loss to the world.

In my child’s mind, not a jot of awareness of my mother’s grief. I just didn’t get it, not at all, not a bit. I’m sorry about that, but then again—I was just a kid.

Death of Katherine Mansfield

 

When I discovered that Katherine Mansfield had died of tuberculosis, the romantic appeal of death was intensified. Yes, death had a glamour—but I was constitutionally ill-suited to the pale and melancholy look I aspired to. I would suck in my cheeks and gaze into the distance and do my best to loll and droop—but within seconds I would revert to smiling, healthy, and (terrible thought) normal again.

Real death versus literary death

Round two with death happened when I was 14. Two ex-classmates, Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, committed a murder that sent a massive wave of salacious excitement through the country and affected me in ways I still haven’t resolved. This event shattered the cognitive dissonance that had enabled me to read Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh murder stories for entertainment. A literary murder was neat and tidy and thinkable. A real murder was unthinkable, fraught with guilt, panic, and pain.

Getting serious about death

In my poetry and other writing, death is a frequent protagonist or bystander. But hey, let’s not attach too much significance to this: I’m a poet, and death is one of our standard topics. At one point, it even seemed de rigueur for woman poets to die young for the sake of credibility.

However, I have a confession.  I did waste a few months planning my own suicide, and the go-dead date was getting close. Luckily I snapped out of the mind-set that had made this plan seem so wise, so thoughtful, so ingenious, so altruistic. A counsellor told me exactly what to do instead. I have learned that this syndrome is not uncommon, and it seemed to serve a purpose at the time.

Death at one remove demands a light touch

Look at those stories, so frivolously told! I am amazed at the way we can joke about death — as long as it’s not close to home. It must be a survival mechanism.

Don’t worry: I do know that death is not funny, not glamorous, not literary, not trivial, and usually not kind to others.

I’m glad I waited.

How about you? What episodes shaped your early attitudes to death?