Reflections in old age

An article by Tony Akkermans

November 2020

Last month I turned 80. Other milestones have made an impact before but this one was different. When hitting the 60 or 70 count it is possible to pretend that you are still in late middle age but the 80 mark puts a stop to all that. Now the hard fact is staring you in the face; you are old. And with the sobriquet ‘old’, thoughts inevitably turn to the dark at the end of the tunnel. My son wrote an amusing poem for the occasion, highlighting aspects of my life but it also contained the line: “So eight decades down and still ticking but enduring ever more humour about bucket kicking”.

Mostly such sentiments remain unspoken but a realist cannot escape the fact that time might be nearly up. And what a lot of time it has been. When pregnant with me in May 1940 my mother’s home town Rotterdam was cruelly bombed with a loss of almost 1,000 lives. Four and a half years later I watched the sky from our village close to Arnhem, filled with thousands of planes and gliders, carrying paratroopers hoping to dislodge the occupying forces. Following the failure of the landings I found myself within months evacuated to the west of the country where we endured the ‘Hunger Winter’, starving 25,000 people to death. Ever after I have felt annoyance at people making a fuss about the quality of their food. After this perilous start, life in the West has been good with progress on many fronts.

The fortuitous lifestyle now enjoyed makes it doubly galling to have to contemplate an approaching end. And contemplating this prospect I increasingly do. From a cherry tree on our lawn I have suspended a swing seat from where I look out over South Shropshire’s rolling hills. It pains me then to have to come to terms with the fact that before too many years are out, these blue remembered hills will continue to stand there dispensing tranquillity in the absence of my company. The sorrow of having to part with this life arises from my conviction as a lifelong humanist that this life is the only one I am ever going to have and that after death there is no second instalment.

The predominant reason why religion has maintained its appeal, even in these modern times, is its promise of a second bite at the cherry. The thought of lasting oblivion has always proved too much to bear for most of mankind and the assurance of an afterlife, even in its vaguest terms, has served to soften the spectre of death. This mighty promise forms the central plank in the armoury of all religions. It easily overshadows such lofty ambitions as love thy neighbour and peace on earth. After all, such objectives can also readily be achieved by non-religious means. The golden rule is available to all. But eternal bliss and the reunification with relatives and friends are benefits so tempting, so desirable that they had to be invented as soon as the development of the human brain allowed it. If the brains of fish could rise to such exotic ambitions, they too would devise a heaven of their own choice. In his poem ‘Fish Heaven’ the poet Rupert Brooke explains which form that would take. It deserves to be quoted in full:

Fish (fly-replete, in depth of June,
Dawdling away their wat’ry noon)
Ponder deep wisdom, dark or clear,
Each secret fishy hope or fear.
Fish say, they have their Stream and Pond;
But is there anything Beyond?
This life cannot be All, they swear,
For how unpleasant, if it were!
One may not doubt that, somehow, Good
Shall come of Water and of Mud;
And, sure, the reverent eye must see
A Purpose in Liquidity.
We darkly know, by Faith we cry,
The future is not Wholly Dry.
Mud unto mud!–Death eddies near–
Not here the appointed End, not here!
But somewhere, beyond Space and Time,
Is wetter water, slimier slime!
And there (they trust) there swimmeth One
Who swam ere rivers were begun,
Immense, of fishy form and mind,
Squamous, omnipotent, and kind;
And under that Almighty Fin,
The littlest fish may enter in.
Oh! never fly conceals a hook,
Fish say, in the Eternal Brook,
But more than mundane weeds are there,
And mud, celestially fair;
Fat caterpillars drift around,
And Paradisal grubs are found;
Unfading moths, immortal flies,
And the worm that never dies.
And in that Heaven of all their wish,
There shall be no more land, say fish

Make believe of this calibre can only be resisted by hardened rationalists capable of accepting the harsh reality that the brief spell in the sun allotted to us by chance is all there is. That never again you will see the people dearest to you. Your lifelong partner, your children, your grandchildren, your siblings, your parents, all lost to you irretrievably for all eternity. When my brother stood at the graveside of his 19-year-old daughter, killed in an accident, he bravely spurned false comfort: “Connie, today we must say goodbye to you for ever”. Presumption of finality after death brings with it the compelling obligation on all of us humanists to make the very best of this priceless, once only, opportunity of life. That is why there is so much irony in the tendency of the religious to state that without a belief in god or the afterlife, life is devoid of meaning. It may be devoid of meaning if all your eggs are in the celestial basket but if the here and now is all we have, every moment must be savoured to the full.

I am hoping, of course, that a further allotment of years will come my way. Statistically this expectation can be justified, because although 80 is the average lifespan for men, the fact that the 80 number has been achieved, probability entitles me to another 8 years. I have never been superstitious, but I had better stop being presumptuous here and adopt a wait and see attitude instead. In the meantime I will do my level best to improve my interaction with dear ones, enjoy birdsong more than ever and spend more time studying land and sky from my vantage point under the cherry tree.