Susan and I recently returned from Madeira, where we spent my 70th birthday. To leave the grey chill of England behind, for the clear skies, warmth and crystal air of this tiny, mountainous island far out in the Atlantic was the best birthday present I can remember.
I don’t often write this kind of blog post, but I have been so surprised to have reached the age of three-score years and ten that I couldn’t forbear to mention it here. Every since I became fully aware of the limits of a lifespan I have expected to die young. There have been some practical reasons for this – a family history of heart disease, a dangerous occupation for much of my life, several of my closest friends dying in their 40s – but I’m not sure that these things explain the pervasive sense I have had of death being a constant, not unfriendly, companion. I’ve written something of this elsewhere, and yet I’ve not been able to put into words this quality of companionship, of death as a close and not unwelcome, still less unwholesome, presence.
Ursula le Guin begins her A Wizard of Earthsea with the words (attributed to “the oldest song, The Creation of Éa”):
Only in silence the word,
Only in dark the light,
Only in dying life:
Bright the hawk’s flight
On the empty sky.
For all that I have grieved those I’ve lost over the years – my parents, my dear friends – I have never had the sense of death as an enemy. Quite the opposite – death has sat across from me for so many years, good-humouredly watching, gently reminding me that, as Pippin said when Gandalf explained dying to him, “That isn’t so bad…” That once “the grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass,” then we know that really, in the end, truly, it’s OK. We never were alone, and love is a very good name for God – for that Source of all in which all things from galaxies to wood mice grow, and are held. That out of which, finally, we can never fall, but which will call us home to endless light, and the healing of all wounds.
And so here I am, rather unexpectedly, an old man. It’s good. I am happier these days than I have ever been, and life is sweeter. After all these years, it has proved true that “…in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8.28) It’s just a little stranger, and more real, than I had thought.