Mortality and the art of living

The Danish birth certificate in Jelling. Photo: Mick 2005

Denmark’s birth certificate in Jelling. Photo: Mick 2005

It seems to me death is all around me. First, tragically, actor Robin Williams commits suicide, which makes me wonder how could such a funny man, who seemed to be able to summon joy for himself and other people, do that to the people he loves? Then, horrifyingly, American journalist James Foley is decapitated by members of Islamic State, which makes me wonder how people can hate so much to justify this violence? In Ferguson, Missouri police kill 18-year-old Michael Brown, sparking racial unrest, which makes me wonder why the colour of your skin should determine your life chances. Next, the 1975 Klaus Rifbjerg radio drama, De Beskedne, that I was listening to abruptly ends with the sad death of the family patriarch, which makes me wonder about the cleverness of writers to make you care so much about a character that you feel sad with his or her fictional passing. Finally, I see on Facebook that a childhood friend, the drummer of my brother’s teenage band, passed away before turning 50 years old, which makes me wonder about life’s fragility and my own mortality.

It happens all the time, death, it is a consequence of living; in its own way it is probably the very realisation of life’s finiteness that gives us motivation to live well. In a paradoxical sense, the living is so much harder to do than the dying. Precisely I was granted life through the amazing fact of the evolutionary success of every ancestor that has come before me: each one of them, right back to the primordial soup, were successful in navigating life and surviving at least until they could reproduce. How to make sense of the millisecond of life I have on life’s stage in the long history of the world? How to be secure in the knowledge of my own value and worth in the bigger scheme of things; how to live well; how to make a difference and make a mark? And then you die. And most of us will die twice – once those who remember us also die we will finally slip into oblivion.

Death is the certainty of living. Photo: Mick 2005

Death is the certainty of living. Photo: Mick 2005

In 1979, death first came close to my life when my grandfather, Morfar, died. It was suddenly, without warning; a heart attack, as he sat up in the bed in my mother’s sister’s house. I loved Morfar, who was always warm, funny and willing to read us Asterix comics because he himself was deeply interested in ancient history. He took my brother and I to see the archeological diggings for the remains of 1000 year old Gorm den Gamle in the church in his home town, Jelling. In viking times Jelling was the residence of the Danish monarch and to this day, the rune stone known as Denmark’s birth certificate still stands here. Sadly, at the time of Morfar’s funeral, Jelling’s church was still closed for these important investigations and we sat in a neighbouring community, singing for him and ourselves with our tears, memories and gradual realisation about life’s fragility, our own mortality, how irreversible death is and how long ‘forever’ really lasts.

In 2003, the last of my grandparents, my beloved grandmother, Farmor, died. I loved Farmor who had simply always been there for us. She had reminded me that I was going to come back to Denmark when my kids were ready for school – which I never did. I was across the world in Australia and could not be at her funeral. It was the end of an era. My father said to me: “My generation is next in line”. Ten years later he passed away and, given the fact that my mother died in 1997, I urgently feel my generation is now next in line. The untimely death of someone I knew when I was just a kid, someone just two years older than me, brought this fact straight home to me.

Next on my bucket list is our one year stay in Denmark in 2015. I will be home again, after 23 1/2 years living in another country. 23 1/2 years are roughly half my lived life. Does that mean I am Danish and Australian in equal portions? I look forward to reconnect with my culture, my family and friends. I especially look forward to spending more time with my nieces and nephews. Indeed, in the midst of all the mortality, a brand new member of my Danish family was also born. I cannot wait to meet you, Lillepigen.

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