Shadows of mortality

I wrote the other day about mortality, somewhat in the abstract. It was a theory espoused, pieced together on my outward journey from Australia and gathered together into words and a shape upon my return. In the period in between, while I was abroad, they became real to me for a few days.

I went to KL and had a fine time in familiar places. As always when I travel I didn’t feel quite right physically. My leg had played up moderately in the trip from Melbourne, and as usual I felt bloated and unhealthy. That surely wasn’t helped by the lifestyle I enjoyed while there, but there was a truth outside of that. I was bloated, literally – a pair of pants I bought in KL now sag at my waist a size too big. I carried with me that sense of physical discomfort. Then I flew off to London.

That was an awful journey. As I wrote, I went somewhere between 60-70 hours without any meaningful sleep, and a good portion of it jammed into tight spaces. It prolonged and deepened the sense of physical discomfort for days after I arrived, but worst of all it was bad news for my leg.

In the days after I arrived in London I battled jetlag and ill-health. My leg was my great concern, however. It had blown up in the trip over. Normally when I sleep my leg returns to something like normal. That wasn’t the case this time. I woke with my leg the same exaggerated dimensions as I went to sleep – ugly, and uncomfortable. I felt it too, felt pain in my leg, so that I walked with a limp – the first time since I got the DVT years ago. It concerned me.

I was conscious throughout of overcoming these things. I had come all this way, I had to have a good time. And I did, in a way. I took pleasure in the individual things I did, but overlaying it all was this were the physical ailments that dogged me, literally, at every step; and, more deeply, the psychological implications of it all.

We’re all mortal. We go grey, we acquire wrinkles, our bodies sag, we lose that limber sense of immortality, and eventually we fail. Mostly that’s a long way from our mind. It creeps up on us, day by day, so surreptitious that we don’t really notice until we compare photos from that time to this, and reflect then on the changes that have taken place. I’m no different except, perhaps, that the sense of limber immortality has been stronger and more persistent in me than most. Then, abruptly, it wasn’t.

That’s what it seemed like in London. All of a sudden I felt very old. Why am I doing this? I asked myself. Wasn’t it time to give away these youthful adventures? Wasn’t I deceiving myself? Who am I fooling? There was a sense of humiliation in this.

Mixed up with it was real concern. My leg troubled me so much that I had real concerns about how I was to get home. There’s always a worry in these situations that a clot will return, and in the pressurised environment of a plane will travel. My leg was bad day after day to the point that I should see a doctor before going anywhere. It was a strange feeling. What it amounted to was a very strong presentiment of mortality. I was not the man I once was. More than that, I was at risk – everything that I had ever taken for granted could be taken from me.

Looking back on it now it seems melodramatic. I’m stoic by nature though; I don’t do self-indulgent drama. Perhaps I began to consider the worst, but the worst was possible. And even so – I thought I’d make it back to Melbourne safely – I wondered if my days of travelling were over. If this is what I had to endure; if this is what I risked boarding a plane: could I realistically continue to do it?

These thoughts stir up a lot. I sought to apply myself, as I always do in such situations, by applying discipline to my activities. I wanted to have a good time, but within parameters. I cut down the pints. I ate less and with more discernment. I made myself walk everywhere when I wasn’t on the Tube. I sought to refute the negative prospects my mind had conjured up. Gradually it worked. My leg eased, though it remained large. I felt better in myself, the bloating subsiding as I pounded the pavements. I did not yet feel myself, but I was some way back to that.

With things settling down I had time to reflect. Thoughts of mortality were fair enough. I am mortal. I will decline, and have. I may be customarily blithe about it, but it’s true. I sensed a truth in myself: about how much of my self-image was wrapped up in being able to do these things – travel and flirt, eat well, drink plenty, push myself to adventure. A thought came to me: the day I look in the mirror and see someone fat, old and ugly is the day that terminal despair will set in. That remains true even now, sitting here healthy and composed in Melbourne. I rely too much on these trinkets.

Worse than all that though is if I were to begin to lose that intellectual self. There’s no sign of that as yet and no reason that there should be. But even though there is a powerful physical vanity that motivates me, the intellectual vanity is supreme. I look in the mirror and see myself, but who I am really is this mind.

I made it safely back to Melbourne. Tomorrow I see a doctor about my leg, and also about my chest – I have an infection. My leg remains frustrating, but has settled down. I feel fine overall. I look in the mirror and I still look years younger – someone the other day suggested 34; I’m quite fit, and look good. My mind feels as sharp as ever. I may be getting old, I may have glimpsed mortality, but I feel fine still in myself.

Truth remains that what I sensed away is real in some way. All these things will come to pass. In the meantime I need to find a way to adapt to them, to replace one thing with something more lasting and authentic.