It was the time of her life. Cake, balloons, fruit punch, a beautiful new dress. Oh, and all her family and friends. Of course, she had outlived most. But that's to be expected when you turn 100. We'd planned it for a very long time and for a year or two it felt like we could talk of little else. Would Granny make it? That was five months ago, and it's a funny thing, but now I can't help wondering, what next? Like when you're expecting a baby and all you can focus on is the birth, I guess I'd never thought beyond the party.
Obviously death awaits us all and presumably her sooner rather than later, yet my grandmother is still so very alive, so very sure of her own mind, that it's almost impossible to fathom her absence. When my husband is out and the kids and I are alone on a Friday night, it is not the company of my friends I first seek, but her company. I ring: does she fancy fish and chips? There is always tea and homemade biscuits for afters. And I fear, when she goes how I will ever compensate for the lost rituals.
Selfishly, I worry about myself, but not her; she has a strong faith and I know she will not cower when it's time.
What of the rest of us though? Left all alone in this anxious place. A friend gave me a book recently: Staring at the Sun, written by psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom. It is about overcoming the dread of death. But I don't think I do, I said. I fear those I love dying, but not my own death. Read it anyway, she urged.
Dr Yalom's central thesis is that awareness of our mortality is at the root of all anxiety. He believes we all have a fear of dying, only in some it's "covert" and in others "overt". If I do have it, I decided after last week's column provoked an onslaught of disgusted emails (see below for a small selection), then mine is covert. Feeling particularly thin-skinned last weekend, my thoughts, as they sometimes do when I am anxious, turned to death. Not in a suicidal way, I have no intention of curtailing things, but when I get to the end of what I hope will be a long life, I imagine I'll welcome death. Oblivion sounds quite restful to a busy mind.
I have a friend with an overt fear of dying. I asked her to describe it. It's not how I die, she said. It's being dead; and the universe going on forever and ever and my not being a part of it. She grew up Catholic but walked away. I hoped for a long time, she said, that one day I'd meet someone who would share with me a belief system that would provide me with comfort, but it's always just my thoughts, keeping me awake in the middle of the night.
Yalom writes that in the face of the inevitable, the only comfort lies in the power of ideas. He quotes Nietzsche, who challenged us to imagine how we'd feel if we had to live an identical life to the one we are living over and over again. Always to repeat the same mistakes. When he puts it to his patients, says Yalom, unanimously they conclude that all you can do is find a way to live without continuing to accumulate regrets.
Last week, in what with hindsight I can only think must have been a very clumsy attempt to discuss our skewed moral compasses, I revealed one or two of the morally dubious practices of myself and others I know. The jury that is this magazine's readership would have me hanged, drawn and quartered.
Pauline: "So you, your friends and family are all thieves. Charming. Not so much loss of moral compass but a deliberate act to take something that's not yours. Shame on you all."
Richard: "Your poor attempts at justifying stealing is just what the country needs. Thanks for nothing."
Wendy: "Not a good role model for children and you wouldn't be welcome in my house in case you nicked something."
Steve: "Hopefully you haven't wronged anyone lately who is as morally corrupt as you ... they may see fit to seek justice outside of the law."