I read late last year a collection of short stories by the American author Mark Helprin. Reading I was struck by the moral weight of the stories. They were written with a light, sometimes lyrical, touch, but from a particular philosophical perspective. Clearly, Helprin held strong views on many things, on natural justice, on good conduct, on sorrow and happiness and the exchange between the two. All this was communicated, and illuminated, with prose of rare precision and clarity. There was philosophy in his words, but heart also. It was a very satisfactory read.
There were about six stories I loved equally, but one that had a particular impact on me. Sail Shining in White is the story of an old sailor facing up to a tornado. He has lived a fine, good life, full of adventure and accomplishment and great love. Across the country he has a daughter he dotes on; his wife, the glory of his life, is dead before him. All this is revealed in snippets throughout the story as offshore the tornado builds to its destructive crescendo. As the hatches are battened down and the town evacuated the old sailor remains, and as the storm encroaches he climbs into his yacht for its last voyage – and sails off into the heart of the storm.
To me reading this seemed a fitting end to a grand life. He died as he had lived, the bit between his teeth and on his own terms. It was time. It was time because he had lived so long and well and because the world he had lived in and much of the love had gone before him. Life would go on behind him, his daughter would continue to live as he had and with much before her, but he recognised that his time had come. There seemed something true in this, like a living full stop to the life lived well and satisfactorily. He would not wither at the vine; rather he would go out as the man inside him should.
I felt the story high in my chest. I remember I lay in my Brisbane bedroom and thought about it for a good while, the lamp on beside me and the dark outside. It led me to reflect upon my own death.
This has never been a certainty. For many years I chose to believe that death was something I could elect to take or leave. I was only half-serious, but half is enough. I thought I could go on and on if I believed enough. I would proclaim it with a rakish smile on my face, and with a swagger that was natural back then.
Older now, I don’t swagger so much. I’m not sure I would like to be immortal – I’m sure it would be interesting, but I’m not so sure I could handle getting that decrepit. And so as the years have gone on I have come to accept that I may well perish someday.
Having accepted that the manner of my death and after has given me to cause to wonder. Few men can know when they will die, or how. I am no different. I can only hope it is far from now and is dignified. And I hope that when the time comes I can look back with pride and satisfaction at a life well-lived. I believe for that reason that we should endeavour to be all we can, to live all the way up and to leave no stone unturned. It occurred to me last week as I watched the Commonwealth nations march into the stadium: why not strive to be outstanding?
If I could die like the old man in the story does I would be happy. I would be happy to sail off into oblivion, never to be seen again. If that is not to be the case I want to die with my wits and all that is me still intact. I have seen people die badly, and don’t believe in it. I want to die as I have lived. For my marker, I would like a boulder on the top of a hill in the bush or overlooking the ocean. I don’t want to be mingled with the rest of the dead people. I want space and freedom, even when I don’t really need it.
That’s if I elect to die, naturally.
Last week I heard a Johnny Cash song I had never heard before, which is what has prompted this reflection. The song is Hurt, from late in his career. It is a fine song, and in his fashion as much spoken as sung, and in his fashion lived. He sings as the camera plays across his impressive face, a big man in spirit as much as stature. The guitar strums slowly, he sings from near the end of a journey, measured, true. All is familiar now, from living, and from this place, there are memories looking back and ahead something certain but unknown…what have I become, my sweetest friend…It is grim and melancholy but somehow uplifting also. There is acceptance that this is the way of life…everyone I know goes away, in the end…that they have gone and I too will go and leave behind this world. All is transient, all passes… The song builds to a kind of peak and while in the film clip his beloved wife looks on, witness to the truth we turn from more than not…I will let you down, I will make you hurt…
Both are now gone. He must have known as he sang that his time was not far away and it was in his voice as he looked down that barrel. This too must pass.