DEATH IN THE AFTERNOON
Last week, I got the scare of my life. A friend, back from a wine tour of France, sent me an e-mail saying he needed a liver transplant. I gasped. He was so much younger than I, how was that possible? I called him at his home at once, though the hour was unseemly. He laughed when he heard my concern and told me what he’d written was a joke. It was his way of saying he’d had a great time in France and drank too much wine. I realized at once here was a generational gap. People my age don’t make jokes about needing a liver transplant.
The whole episode might have been forgotten if I hadn’t received a call from this same friend a few days later to cancel the plans we’d made to see a movie. His law partner of 24 years had died while playing tennis. My friend was stunned and needed time to grieve. I empathized as I’ve seen several friends put in the ground.
I hope none of what I’ve written is too depressing. Death is an aspect of life at any age. As one gets older, one becomes more cognizant of this fact, and because of it, life becomes more precious.
Ernest Hemingway wrote of this phenomenon in a non-fiction book called “Death in the Afternoon.” In it, he chronicles the rituals of the Spanish bullfight. He was an aficionado who felt what elevated bull fighting above ordinary “sport” was the element of death in the ring, either for the bullfighter or for the bull. For Hemingway, death’s presence gave the toreador’s life meaning. He saw bullfighting was a metaphor for how to live with grace and courage while conscious that at any moment, one might cease to exist.
While l don’t subscribe to Hemingway’s admiration for bullfights, neither do I find his concept off-putting. When we are young, we accept each day as only one in an endless chain. When we are old, we know otherwise, having ceased to think of ourselves as immortal. Frankly, the knowledge can be liberating. There is no squandering of time. Each second is a pearl to be valued, not as one in a necklace, but as a treasure in itself. To live with that intensity is a gift or an art form.