Taking part in a discussion with eldercare campaigner Marion Shoard on Woman’s Hour yesterday was one of the scarier moments of my life. Almost as bad as flying in an aeroplane (which for me tips over into miserable experience). But I had the same heart rate going through the roof. Same wanting to throw up. Same throat muscles closing in on themselves.
Since the subject was talking about dying, I realise that some people might think this reaction a bit extreme. Surely nothing is more frightening than the thought of dying.
Perhaps I’m a bit odd, but thinking about dying is a doddle compared with sitting on my own in the BBC Radio Gloucester studio (I couldn’t make it to the London studio), head phones on, watching the second hand of the clock ticking away on the screen in front of me to the moment that Woman’s Hour goes on air, with a big neon red button beside it saying ‘Mic Live’.
Watching that clock hand move to the top of the hour (as they say in radio-speak) made me think about the time I tried parachuting twenty odd years ago. Hating flying as I do, I can’t imagine why I decided to do this. I must have been going through my ‘face-the-fear-and-do-it anyway’ phase.
Indeed anyway, I found myself with a group of other lunatics in a light airplane seemingly made out of balsa wood, circling up several thousand feet – although it was probably only 1500 feet.
I happened to be the last one out. This meant that everyone had jumped before me, and the plane had to circle again to gain the correct height and wind factor (or whatever) before it was my turn. Staring down at toy-town earth, waiting with the jump-master beside me, ready to heave me out if I faltered for a moment, was probably the most lonely and frightening self-inflicted moment of my life (followed closely by fire-walking – but that’s another story for another day).
After the jump-master checked my parachute line was doing what it was meant to do, and gave me the thumbs-up, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and leapt into thin air. To this day I can remember the terrifying sensation of plummeting earthwards. Then a jerk as the parachute released itself, and me shrieking with gratitude, ‘Thank you. Oh, thank you for opening.’
A parachute jump doesn’t last very long. A few minutes at most. So, by the time I was getting used to the rather nice sensation of floating through air, I realised the ground was rushing up to meet me. All the training I had done in the morning went out of the window, and I landed with a mighty blow to the side of my helmet, causing my brain to rattle around my skull. It only stopped rattling a week later.
I think death is going to be a similar experience. Lots of anticipation, anxiety, fear, even terror. Then, no matter how prepared you think you are, a moment will come when you have to just let go. Whether there’s a bumpy landing on the other side of life, who knows. What happens after we die is one of life’s great mysteries, and long may it remain so.
But, I also believe that all the scary situations in which we find ourselves during our lifetime are a preparation for those final moments. Fear – especially performance fear – forces us think about how we can do things differently. Or what we need to improve for the next time. In fact, fear makes us face ourselves, just as death does.
I am delighted that Woman’s Hour invited me to talk about dying, although ten minutes is too short to do this vast, important subject the justice that it needs. (Following the programme, I was very glad to receive an email from Becky, the delightful Woman’s Hour researcher, to say the subject deserves a programme to itself).
But, by taking part, I learnt more about myself, my fears, and my relationship with my own death. To me, that is a true gift.