October 30, 2015 admin

The unwritten story

Of all things this sad week, I had to speak yesterday at a seminar in Cambridge on ‘The Good Death’. I hadn’t given the subject much specific thought because all these last days I’ve been thinking about little else.

My good friend David Cesarani, (professor, OBE) the world isn’t the same without you, the warmth, the wit, the vast knowledge and huge love of learning, the man who advised governments, who was a key public voice on Holocaust, history and justice, who loved good food, good soup, good parties, was generous and soft-hearted to the core, (and sometimes outrageous as well) the best friend of tens of friends across the world, and who owed so much to the devotion, love, perceptiveness and good judgment of his wife Dawn, and to his joy in his children Daniel and Hannah, who were also, something few fathers achieve, his close friends and partners in the love of books and ideas, music, mountains and life.

I looked down at the nearby ground as we stood at the cemetery and saw that I was surrounded by friends. There you are, David Jackson, who for forty years after your first stroke scarcely complained, but wrote music and poetry, mastered the disciplines of Talmud, wrote a commentary to very one of the 150 Psalms, intercepted any notion of self-pity with humour and banter, and remembered the silent lakes of North Wales where your father took you fishing (‘I always put them back in the water’) with a wistful recollection of tranquil wonder.

And there is Cheeky, who plied my children with chocolates every time we came to visit, who remembered how in the small town in South Africa the women (injustice) worked all night to prepare for Pesach, then slept exhausted the whole Seder through, and who (‘why waste time’) spent the days before her operation helping the over-worked nurses on the ward at the Royal Free.

And there is my father-in-law, whose welcome into the family I still see before my eyes every time I go down to Kent, and whom I hear say to Nicky and me in his speech at our wedding, ‘I hope it won’t be too long before you present us with the ultimate gift’ and who won at bridge even years into his dementia, and who always smiled.

And there are all the others; the older one gets the more friends one has in low places. But they are very reliable, and unequalled in eloquence, and they all say the same: ‘These are the things that matter: goodness, kindness, friendship, love’.

There’s much to say about ‘A Good Death’ (like making sure the nurses and doctors and everyone else who cares for the ill and dying is cared for too, so that they have more heart, and time, to care). But nothing so contributes to a ‘good death’ as a good life, whether short or long.

A co-speaker on the panel (whom I can’t name because I haven’t asked permission) whose self-deprecating wit was a weak defence against his obvious perceptiveness and warmth of heart, spoke of how little he often knew about the earlier lives of the patients he saw in their last days, and how humbled it made him feel if he did later learn of their achievements.

‘I need to do something interesting to brighten up my obituary’ he said wryly, a great – and awful – line; by which he meant that we’d better fill our lives with friendship, courage, goodness and affection while we can, because they compose the unwritten story those around us carry in their hearts.

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