My death waits like an old roue’
So confident, I’ll go his way
Whistle to him and the passing time
My death waits like a Bible truth
At the funeral of my youth
Are we proud for that and the passing time?
My death waits like a witch at night
As surely as our love is right
Let’s not think about the passing time
But whatever lies behind the door
There is nothing much to do
Angel or devil, I don’t care
For in front of that door there is you
LAST week I sat talking with my 85-year-old mum about life, death, the universe and our own mortality.
She began reviewing the fact that most of her peers, friends and siblings have now died and the ensuing loneliness is sometimes difficult to bear.
I blithely joked that she is still healthy and active and has experienced a full life.
And that life should not be measured by age or loss.
Then the conversation turned to myself and my own mortality.
And as I look at my ageing mum and in the mirror at myself, I realise that time never stands still.
I could have died a few times – twice from cancer, once in a high speed car crash and more recently from a vicious assault which left me minutes from the end.
But I am still here and age defines me.
As it does for all of us.
Three months ago, I happened to be in South Wales on a business trip, and decided to use my time there to visit the grave of a dear soul mate who died tragically young 26 years ago.
Andrea Price, was born and grew up in the small mining village of Rassau by Ebbw Vale.
She was the sweetest and most funny girl I had ever met and we became inseparable soul mates, while we both battled cancer together during the winter of 1987 and summer of the following year.
Racked in pain, with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a bone cancer – diagnosed while she was on a walking holiday in France – she knew her chances of survival were slim.
“But I’m going to fight it,” she urged, willing me to do the same. “I haven’t yet got my degree, I haven’t learned to drive… and I’m still a virgin.
“I want to live a bit before I die.”
But that did not dull the agony when in May 1990 I stood and shared heart wrenching tears at her funeral.
For me, my memories of Andrea always remain, and often been my driving force to live.
Her smile and her laughter as she beat me in a physiotherapy game of football in the hospital gym, where she was only allowed to use her right leg and I only my arm. At the end of the game we collapsed side by side on the floor guffawing at how silly all this was.
Then there was the Wednesday night visit to the local rugby club for a game of bingo and a half pint of beer. We walked slowly back to the hostel at 10pm. She rested her head on my shoulder as we walked and suddenly whispered: “I love you Nic… we are going to win, aren’t we?”
I kissed her forehead and answered: “Of course we will.”
A year before her death I visited Andrea again in a hospital in Birmingham, where she had undergone a hip replacement operation in a last attempt by surgeons to remove the seat of her cancer.
I sat and clenched her right hand and looked into her sparkling eyes.
I giggled: “Hey, you’ve got freckles and hair!”
“Yes,” she answered, “I have been off chemotherapy for three months now to build up my strength for the op’.”
I had only known Andrea as a tall, underweight, pale-faced girl stooped under a horrendous NHS wig, which at times made her look like an extra in the Addams Family.
But now, holding her hand, this was how I was going to remember her.
True love never dies.
And something remarkable happened during my recent trip to south Wales.
After laying flowers at the cemetery where her body rests, I decided to post a copy of my book The Hill (with a brief accompanying letter) through the letterbox of her old home – vaguely hoping it might reach someone in her family.
My book included two poems I had written to Andrea.
Time passed and I naturally assumed the missive had failed.
But always be prepared for the unexpected.
Three weeks ago I unexpectedly received an email from Andrea’s younger brother, asking if he could buy more copies of my book for other members of her family.
I fought hard to fight back tears as I read his email.
And later I cried again when he told me that her father (now in his 70s) was writing to me with some photographs of Andrea – the one thing I have never had is a photo of my beautiful departed friend.
In the words of Bob Dylan: “Death is not the end”.
I have faced the death of family and friends many times over the years.
The grief is always immeasurable, and in recent years some of those deaths were untimely and shocking.
Last year I discovered that my former brother-in-law Dougie had died suddenly aged just 54.
It was a total shock. I had not seen or spoken to Dougie for many years, since my former partner and I split, but he was a lovely man and the world became an emptier place with his passing.
Then a few weeks later, I found out that one of my oldest and dearest friends Gill Gilson had died in the summer of 2014 after a long battle with lung cancer. Gill was just 56.
We met at university and became the closest of friends. We were never romantically attached… we were just good mates and stayed in touch for many years after graduating. She sometimes came to stay and we would sit and laugh as we shared many student memories.
I also remember Gill giving me a lift home from Yorkshire to Sussex in her old Morris 1000 Traveller and eating cold bacon sandwiches which she had secreted wrapped in foil in her glove compartment.
Memories of life are made of this.
Gill was a musician and a fabulous piano teacher. Her only weakness – and her charm – was she loved beer and I still remember the mornings I had to knock on her door to tell her to get to lectures because she had imbibed in a few too many jars the night before.
Gill oozed fun, gentleness and companionship in everything she did.
I miss her.
Four weeks ago I took a long overdue holiday in my old haunt of Chichester in West Sussex.
Whenever returning home – as I still call Sussex – I always made a point of catching up with another old friend, Jayne West.
Jayne and I met as teenagers while nursing together way back in 1978.
Any hope I may have had of a romantic attachment disappeared quickly when on our second date she told me she was gay and lived happily with her partner Julie.
She was the first openly lesbian woman I had ever met – in a time when personal sexuality was more closely guarded.
So instead of romance, we became lifelong friends. Each visit we would swap stories of the directions our lives had travelled and how much weight we had both gained.
I had not seen Jayne for over 10 years, so this holiday visit was going to be an extra special catch-up.
But before I set off for the drive down south, I discovered that Jayne had died in November 2013, aged just 56.
Her partner Julie was with her to the end.
It seems that time, life and death waits for no one.
And some deaths are shocking and untimely.
Last week, after collecting my youngest son, Nathan, for a summer break, I discovered that his mum’s (my ex-wife) partner, Warren had been killed in a freak car crash 800 yards from their home, just a few weeks ago.
Warren was 53.
So we live our lives as constructively as we can, seeking happiness and pleasure, loving and caring, and at times grieving.
And always knowing that our own time is limited.
I recall two sets of lines from that wonderful movie Dead Poets Society.
The late Robin Williams, playing the role of school teacher John Keating, teaches his charges of the essence of life: “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.
“And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for… that you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.
“That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
And later, turning to fading sepia school photos of students taken decades earlier, he reminds them of the passing time and the brevity of life: “They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel.
“The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable?
“Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? Carpe – hear it? Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”
We should all make our own lives extraordinary as we pass this way just once.
Live today as if it is your last day … carpe diem.