So David Bowie is dead at 69, of cancer (I guess you could say, cigarettes don’t kill people, smoking does). I don’t know about you, but I look at the story and – even as I register, oh gosh, it’s David Bowie this time! – go 69, eh, a little close for comfort.
It’s the age at which someone has kicked the bucket – sloughed off this mortal coil, expired, what have you – that seems to grab my attention. First, of course, it’s who? followed closely by how? (more precisely, what type of grim disease or disaster) and then – so how old was s/he?
If younger, you tell yourself how sad, how tragic – even as you secretly award yourself congratulations at having made it so far. If older, by which I mean a fair bit older, you think to yourself, ‘good innings’ even as you do the math, and shudder. But if it’s someone your own age, more or less – sixtyish, say, even 69, a number that starts with the same digit – it’s like walking into a door. Christ, you think, that hurts, dunnit?
Rob got a letter this week, from a friend of hers in Germany – a couple our own age, who she has known for ever. Klaus, the husband – fit as a fiddle, a hiker and skier – went to the bathroom one morning, and dropped to the floor like a sack of potatoes. Pulmonary embolism. ‘Don’t panic,’ the letter from Germany said – Klaus is recovering in intensive care, thank goodness – ‘but I am shaking as I write this.’
I talk to my mother – 84 in December – and she tells me about the 90 year-old neighbour who is losing it; the friend who has just turned 80 and has had cancer; the others who seem to be dropping around her.
You hear about Bowie on the morning news and see the headlines in the newspapers, you get letters from your friends and you talk to people, and you remember Shakespeare:
‘Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.’
And then you think (I was going to say) ‘what’s for dinner?’
But actually, what you think – what I find myself thinking anyway – is how important it is, necessary even, to live each day to the fullest. Cliched, I know – but that’s what cliches are. Truths, wrapped up in the clown-clothes of the familiar.