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On Being Mortal

Last night I had the privilege of watching John Kani (75) and Anthony Sher (69) perform “Kunene and the King” at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town.

An extraordinary tour de force that hits one repeatedly in the guts – cancer, ageing, racism, vulnerability, friendship, resentment, anger and loss. Yes, these are themes that might sound passé – when performed by two such world-class actors one is reminded of just how cruel they can be.

As my friend said after the play – “you can run but you cannot hide”. I found the Apartheid reminders particularly raw…but also (of course) the portrayal of such excruciating vulnerability, loneliness and pain.

Two Fathers whose children have abandoned them – their inability to come to terms with the rejection, holding on to an illusion that they will come back (“they are so busy”). Clichés – because they are so real!

Watching a play like this I wondered how many people in the audience realise the depth of this reality, how many can identify with what they see on stage. There were many younger people in the audience – a couple sitting in front of me giggled when Anthony Sher did not make it to the toilet on time and soiled his underpants. Yes kids, that happens in real life. Hang around long enough and it might happen to you one day…or your beautiful girlfriend sitting next to you…

We have sterilised and marginalised ageing and death, just as we have sterilised birth. Our inability to engage with our own mortality is more tragic than death itself. We fight – kicking and screaming – against our own bodies and the way in which it takes us on this journey called Life. We demand cures, just about destroying our bodies with chemotherapies against cancer, and take the most poisonous drugs to prevent illnesses that cause more collateral damage than what it does good.

Somehow, we just cannot come to terms with the fact that we are not immortal. We do not want to talk about it. Cliché again, because it is so true, that none of us will get out of here alive. Instead of denying it and fighting, should we not start to embrace it? The challenging thing is that our brains/minds are not wired to

contemplate our ageing – we simply do not have the capacity to envisage our own old age or God forbid, frailty. We all see ourselves as at least twenty years younger than we actually are and stick to that. In a way, it is good to not walk around day in and day out worrying about our getting old and frail. But hell, it would be so much easier if we were a bit more prepared…

At least have the courtesy of doing an Advanced Directive (different from a living will) to support the people who one day might have to support you if you cannot communicate your own wishes. If you suddenly have a debilitating stroke that leaves you speechless – will the people nearest you know how you would wish to be? What the things are that would soothe your soul? To what extent must they go to keep you alive? At all costs? Even if it means that you will not be able to taste any food, be incontinent, be in excruciating pain not able to walk, dress yourself, eat by yourself, wipe your own backside? (Yes yes yes I know – that is why I have a business, and it is a wonderful gift). I am not advocating for assisted dying or euthanasia. I am simply saying wake up – we are not immortal. Nor will we stay forever young.

The sooner we can embrace our ageing and celebrate it in all its splendour and adversity, the smoother the journey will be and the more we will see the wood for the trees.

And like the red car effect – the sooner we start actually looking at older people through a different lens, seeing them as our future selves, engaging with them in a different discourse, admiring them – the sooner we will get a more realistic sense of our own being-in-the-world as people who are growing old, steadily towards the end which none of us can escape.

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