Our very short lives are punctuated—rather unfairly—by an awareness of death. A certainty of mortality. Our own or that of others. What psychologist Irvin Yalom calls “awakenings.” Moments we realize we too, will die.
In 1995, Robert McCrum (b. 1953), longtime publisher and author, suffered a stroke at age 42. Although fully recovered, he has lived in the shadow of death, companioned by its unrelenting promise to arrive.1
Every Third Thought was written in 2017 on the heels of a fall (a “tumble”; McCrum explores different words for it) that reminded McCrum that mortality is the price to pay for life.
Ever since I fell dramatically ill one night in July 1995, I have found myself in the shadow of death. From the moment I woke on that distant summer morning, I have been an involuntary citizen of a world I have had to learn to live in, to be at peace with.
McCrum pulls in others who ponder death—many we will recognize and adore, like Terry Pratchett, who died slowly from Alzheimer’s and said it was like he had two diseases: “One was the Alzheimer’s and the other was knowing I had Alzheimer’s.” Or Prunella Scales, one of my favorite actresses, who so perfectly paired with 2John Cleese in “Fawlty Towers,” and who suffers from the same disease.3
The commonality of McCrum’s collected individuals who think about death is that they are all older than sixty. But death pondering is not the occupation of the old. McCrum cautions—but doesn’t lecture—the young:
This reminds anyone who has lived as if they were immortal that there are no privileges or exceptions—no backstage passes. The remorseless passage of time and the unwelcome intrusion of physical frailty must finally confront everyone with the same inevitable reckoning.
Ultimately, what stands out for McCrum or perhaps arrives at him after so much investigation and work is to accept the limits of our control. To manage wellness, to live in now, and to accept fate. There is a deep open-heartedness in Every Third Thought and, against all odds, a run towards vulnerability rather than a barricading against it.
The celebration of ‘nowness’ must involve a rapprochement with the will-power: the passivity of acceptance. I am certain that, at the end, I shall be listening, not speaking; absorbing or perhaps receiving, not transmitting. When the ferryman arrives to transport me across the dark waters of the Styx, there may be no one to talk to anymore, and—another ‘What if?’—perhaps I shall be no longer able to speak.
Every Third Thought is a book of intense personal reflection and honesty. It is an enduring comfort.4
For other ruminations on our relentless thoughts of mortality (and perhaps finding peace with it), read Irvin Yalom’s gentle, compassionate look at how our connection to others mitigates our death anxiety. I also found comfort in Letters of John Keats, a man who knew he was dying from tuberculous and nevertheless kept the warm company of many, many friends. Susan Sontag did the same at her reckoning.
Something in us doesn’t want to be alone in our thoughts about death. Or, said more simply, something in us doesn’t want to be alone.