Caroline Bobby is a psychotherapist who was also part of the Advantages of Age Death Dinner film. Last year, she was in so much back pain – acute chronic pain – she made a filmed self-inquiry into taking her own life over a nine-month period. And then something miraculous happened. She was booked in for an operation, which was cancelled, she put herself out nakedly on FB to raise money to go private. Within 24 hours, she had £30,000. These are reflections of her continuing recovery. This is her death letter to loved ones
As some of you will know, I am passionate about death and I continue to enquire and investigate this amazing thing that will happen to each of us. So, it doesn’t feel strange to be writing you a letter from the alive side of death.
I am sitting here in January 2021 very much alive, writing some words I wish to have included in the rituals that occur afterwards. Those after-death parties, celebrating, mourning, loving, laughing and weeping of afterwards. I know my afterwards will be good. A consequence of having spoken, written and riffed about my death and dying, as much as I have. As well as knowing that people who love me have heard me.
I don’t doubt for a moment that you – the ones that I am writing to now while imagining your faces and presence – would get it totally right. What I mean by right, is that it would be about me. Seems so obvious, but I don’t think it is. Funerals and memorials, often end up in the hands and power of next-of-kin, and they may not be the ones that are the deepest kin.
I am remembering the horror of living in Sydney when many gay men started dying of AIDS. So many homophobic next-of-kin who claimed their dead sons, taking them away from the kin who knew and loved them. These next-of-kin gave them funerals we were excluded from, that completely eradicated each beloved brother.
That’s an extreme example. I have some biological next-of-kin, my dear brother, a sister-in-law I adore and the most delicious niece. Over the last few decades, we have got closer. We have become more real across the differences, and I know in the event of my death, their involvement would be wholehearted, and that they have seen my life in ways now that they hadn’t before. They would be led by those that know me in more detail and nuance but they are here. You are right here. I can see your faces, the way I did 13 years ago when you crossed the border and really got a glimpse of me by accepting the invitation to my 50th birthday party. I love you so much for that, and nothing was ever as distant again afterwards.
So, I’m imagining myself dead, and someone (maybe Louise, or Cath, or Sue) is reading these words to you, and a gathering well worthy of my little life is happening all around. I want you to know that I’m pissed, (in the American vernacular, rather than drunk) I’m angry.
Of course, I’m not anything, because I’ve disappeared back into the mystery. I’m angry now at the idea of this letter being necessary. This is the letter in case I die suddenly, without any warning, without any space whatsoever. The one for if I get blown up, squashed by a bus, murdered, stroke, aneurysm… you get the picture. One minute I’m here and then not at all. Gone.
Broadly speaking, there are three ways to die. The one outlined above is the one that would piss me off.
The thing is, I don’t want to miss out on my death.
In my wishes, hopes and dream versions of dying, I am either terminally ill, or I get to a point in time when I’m done, and choose to leave life by my own hand.
I have given a lot of thought to both these possibilities.
At the age of 62, I am clear that I don’t want to get very old. If nothing medical shows up as the pathway, I will know when I’m done. It feels like approximately another decade. If I feel into my heart, and I do check in with it, now I know how that’s what I hear.
It would be both simpler and more edgy to die by taking my own life. I like the not-having-to-die-of-cancer part, but it would require a different kind of discourse with people. By people, I mean you, the ones I am writing to now. The you that I have loved and travelled with, touched, been touched by, been loved by, argued with, forgiven and been forgiven by.
It’s an act of some kind of defiance to say – I’m not ill, dying of cancer, or anything else, but I am done. I’m going to go soon. I’ll take some time preparing, I’ll invite you to meet me in some of it. I will probably ask you to take on some specific parts of the afterwards. I’ll let you know when-ish, so it’s not a shock. I know how to do it, I will have the pentobarbital ready, the conditions as I have dreamed them. I won’t ask anyone to sit with me because that is a legally compromising impossibility, but you will know it’s coming, my going. I will say goodbye. I will do it with grace.
That is very different from saying – I have a terminal illness. But if I do develop one, I am not going to fight it. I’m going to learn everything I need to know about how to die of it, what it involves, how long it takes, what it will take from me before that last breath happens. What support I might need because I want to stay at home. I know it’s still a bit off the wall, controversial even, going against the cultural assumption of fighting the good fight for life at any cost.
In both these scenarios, I will have the opportunity, the actual time and space to experience the process of moving, eyes wide open towards that last out breath. If I were sick, I would want to minimise the pain relief, not to a masochistic degree, but I would want to be as awake as reasonably possible. I’m no pain meds prude, but if this were my last dance, I’m up for a bit more pain in order to be conscious so I don’t miss it, this last walk home. The nicer thing about being consciously sick, rather than the barbiturate route, is that I will have you around, faces to see rather than imagine, hands, breath in my ears, near my face. It will feel less lonely, even though I know you would be there holding me either way.
I know I am held, seen and loved, even though I spend a lot of time in solitude. I can always see and feel you if I turn your way and let the light flood in. I am always lying under the brightest of stars and blackest of skies, even though I haven’t ever really seen that sky.
A few words about my clear-as-a-mountain stream, choice not to get what I call old-old. I consider myself in the early stages of being old. If the world were a different world, where systems were built from the bedrock of humanity and kindness, where the places called Care Homes, were as a norm, thought about and operated completely differently. And this work of looking after old humans, was valued and peopled by those well trained and well paid, rather than those desperate for minimal wages to survive, with no training and support – maybe, just maybe, I would feel differently.
I’m not saying all facilities are grim, but that is the norm rather than the exception.
There is something deep in my bones that just doesn’t want old-old age. I’m tired. It hasn’t been an easy journey to find my soft place of belonging here in this ravaged and beautiful world. What I think of as a hard journey to a very soft, though not ‘cotton wool candy soft’ place. These fields of kindness and simplicity require courage, a willingness to let go of pretty much any idea you get too attached to, along with compassion and comedy in equal measure.
I live with, was born into, baseline depression, and have had a long old pilgrimage with understanding that the physical pain in my body is the embodied truth of that. With an almost mythical miracle of generosity and timing, I had my spinal surgery, and have spent the best part of 2020 understanding what I had been blind as a bat to seeing. My baby bones are coming home. It nearly didn’t happen like that. You all know this story.
So, I’m here, and often peaceful in the way my friend, Leonard Cohen speaks of in one of my favourites of his comedy riffs:
‘Peace did not come into my life
My life escaped
and peace was there.’
I’m tired. I have some more life in me, but not without a sense of limits. This is not complicated for me, or sad, bad or wrong. Or right. Just simple.
I long to have the opportunity to die creatively. I want to make it a project that has meaning, may even be an offering. Since kindness and simplicity have found me, I have had this sense that all I have to offer is my little life. I discovered my own generosity, not as claim to anything, but as a gift that brings me closer to myself and to you. It is the ‘peace’ that was there.
If you are listening to these words being read at a ritual gathering, I have died suddenly. I have not been able to give myself to the longed-for experience. I missed it. I feel an indescribable sense of loss at this possibility, just as I know that it is not in my hands. I have to long, and to let go. I am tasting the grief as I write these words. I have to trust you will know how to include this offbeat part of who I am, and who you love, in my afterwards. I do trust that.