I’ve been reading Diana Athill’s book Somewhere Towards the End. Athill, a distinguished editor and writer, who died in January aged 101, wrote the book when she was 90. In it she recalls a visit to the hospital where her mother was on her death bed and how difficult it was to believe her mother was dying because she was so present, so alive.
Her mother went between sleep and moments of lucidity in which she instructed those around her how to look after her dog when she was gone and where she had put her will.
One day, after a long sleep, her mother woke up and said to her daughter: “Did I tell you last week Jack drove me to the nursery garden, to buy that eucalyptus?” Athill replied: “You told me he was going to. Was it fun?”
Her mother answered dreamily – her last words before sleeping again out of which sleep she did not wake: “It was absolutely divine.”
As last words go, those are hard to beat. Although we can’t assume her mother meant it as a verdict on her life, still, the response is replete with celebration, treasured moments remembered right up until the last breath.
Athill herself is pretty unsentimental about the ‘downward journey’ of ageing with its inevitable illnesses and declining capabilities and the great thing about the book is her honesty but also her irrepressible humour that makes the book such a pleasure to read even when she is saying very hard truths.
Athill talks about the ‘good luck’ of having inborn resilience, both in character and in body. Her model, if you like, was the pianist and holocaust survivor Alice Herz-Sommer, who, despite having experienced so much that is tragic, radiated joy until her last breath. Herz-Sommer was still playing the piano at the age of 109 and you can listen to her talking about her life on Youtube, still full of optimism and animated by her love of life.
I have always believed that staying ‘young and beautiful’ into old age depends on taking care of your health throughout your life, approaching everything with a generous heart and keeping a sense of humour. Diana Athill, chapeau!