It’s been a funny 24 hours.
Last night, Liv and I went to a carol service in Clapham, organised annually to raise money for a local hospice. It’s held in a beautiful church with a very talented choir, and this year the congregational carol selection was close to perfect. Once in Royal David’s City, O Come All Ye Faithful, In The Bleak Midwinter, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is a strong line-up, and we belted each one out with appropriate gusto.
Halfway through the service, a member of the hospice’s fundraising committee stepped up to the lectern to deliver an address. He was maybe five years older than me, had an open, kind face, and spoke with a voice that only wavered or trembled occasionally during what turned out to be an extraordinary speech.
His wife died at the hospice in July, at the age of 38. He didn’t talk at all about the illness that caused her death, nor did he touch explicitly on the pain it had caused him or his children. Instead he told us how wonderful the staff and facilities had been at the hospice. What a difference they made to his wife’s morale, and how much they improved the last three weeks of her life. He talked about the peace and dignity with which she’d confronted death, and about the joy and vitality that defined her as a person.
He spoke eloquently, and with a depth of emotion that most of us are rarely capable of channelling coherently during our private conversations, let alone in front of a spellbound audience. He was, by turns, wry, reflective, funny, inspiring, and visibly, unapologetically consumed by grief. To listen to him was to feel – just for those few moments – the extent of our capacity to love another person, and our ability to bear the most devastating loss without crumbling into pieces.
I started crying about halfway through his address, and never really stopped until he left the podium. I don’t think I was alone in that respect. After the service, I hugged Liv for a long time, and we had one of those conversations where words weren’t really required to communicate what each of us was thinking and feeling.
Later in the evening, we went to the BFI IMAX for an 11pm screening of the new Star Wars movie. The Last Jedi isn’t just the cinematic event of the year; it also features Carrie Fisher’s final on-screen appearance, in scenes filmed a few months before her death last December. When we saw Leia for the first time – her face projected out in glorious 3D – I was surprised to hear a collective gasp ripple across the auditorium. It was like people had been waiting for that moment; for the catharsis of saying goodbye to the character, the actress, and the woman all at once.
I’m confident I’m not spoiling anything if I say that death – recent, impending, and actual – is one of The Last Jedi’s underlying themes. It’s a film where the main characters don’t come wrapped in plot armour, and it never felt like anyone was immune from the consequences of the danger and destruction unfolding around them. For some reason, that added poignancy and emotional weight to Carrie Fisher’s scenes; Leia is the heart of the Resistance, but more than that she is its soul, and the movie succeeds in making us care deeply about her survival.
As the end credits rolled, I fished my phone out of Liv’s handbag and opened an email from my dad. After living with MS for many years – a disease that tugs without haste or mercy on the threads that hold you together as a person – his cousin had suffered a number of seizures, and was not expected to survive the night. S was a lovely woman around my parents’ age, who I’d met at various family events, but hadn’t seen for three or four years. Her sister had emailed to say that there was no longer any pain, and that they’d brought S home to die in peace, with her children and husband for company.
This morning I got another email to say that S had died during the night. She spent her final days writing cards and wrapping presents for her grandchildren; she knew she didn’t have long left, and wanted everything to be ready for Christmas, in case she wasn’t around by then – she was that kind of person. The funeral will take place on December 28th, and her close family are clear that they want it to be a celebration of her life. There’s a lot to celebrate.
Death comes to us all, in time, and few of us get to choose when or how it arrives. It can be fast or slow; cruel or merciful; dignified or squalid. It’s the one certainty in life, which is probably why it feels so consistently terrifying.
However, death can also be redemptive, inspiring, and even liberating in the impact it has on those left behind. Each of those three people – my dad’s cousin, the famous actress, a woman I’d never heard of before last night – left their mark on the world around them. They live on in the stories told by a proud, passionate, grief-stricken husband in a church full of strangers; in movies that have thrilled cinema-goers for 40 years, and will continue to do so for as long as people are still watching movies; and in the soft echo of a thousand kindnesses that friends and family will never stop hearing whenever they think of their mother, wife, sister, cousin, or pal.
Like the seeds of a dandelion, they were blown out onto the breeze, and only time will tell where they land.
If it seems incongruous to talk about death on a sex blog, it really shouldn’t. As this incredible guest post from September showed, our mortality is the best reminder of why pleasure holds such value; and why shame in who we are, what we do, or how we love is so self-defeating. Life is here to be lived, and sex is a huge part of that.
I walked around town at lunchtime today feeling unspeakably grateful and blessed: not just for meeting and marrying Livvy, the love of my life, but for all the moments of joy I’ve been lucky enough to experience with other people – and continue to experience. There have been times over the last decade when I’ve been too restless, too impatient, too hedonistic, but taken as a whole I don’t regret the way I’ve approached things. I’ve had so much fun getting to know myself – a process that only really began when I resolved to make pleasure an integral part of my life – and getting to know this whole wonderful community too. I hope there’s much more of that to come.
It’s pointless and self-defeating to go through life with half an eye on the stories we want people to tell of us once we’re gone. However, we ought always to keep in mind the fact that we only get to do this once (in this body, at least), and every moment we waste dangling a toe in the water is a moment that could be spent fully immersed in whichever pool, lake, or deep blue ocean we want to swim.
Best to dive straight in.