As part of my studies, I need to give a presentation to a group of my peers. There I will summarise what I have learned so far and sketch what I plan to do next. The university requires a PowerPoint presentation and so, like an obedient student, I am preparing one.
But a series of zooming bullet points is the surest way to put me to sleep. I can't bear to present like that, nor to talk about my project in such dry terms. I'm studying cross-age relationships, and operating in a narrative framework, which is a fancy way of saying that I get to collect a heap of stories about friendships between kids and adults, and write about them. In drafting my talk I've begun with a story about a cross-age friendship; it will hardly be enhanced by bullet points.
Therefore, I decided to illustrate the themes of the talk with photographs. For example, when talking about mentors and apprentices, or chosen aunties, I will show people engaging in those very relationships.
So I started going through the family albums. I was skimming the pages, thinking about the themes and looking for particular images, when it suddenly struck me just how many people I love have died. Obviously, my mother, my grandparents, and assorted older relatives have passed away – but so many others, too: Barbara, Roy, Keith, Wal, Lance, Soula. Page after page I turned, seeing the father in his thirties who died of cancer; the dad in his forties who collapsed with a heart attack; the mum in her fifties who got septicaemia; the friend who died in a car crash, leaving her daughter an orphan. Page after page after page after page: Michael, Eddie, David, Ross: death was staring me in the face.
There was I, toddler on an earth ball, and the man who supported me, dead. There was I, little girl at a campsite, and the camper next to me, dead. There was I, buck-toothed at the table, and my fellow diners, dead. There was I, inquisitive teenager, and the professor patiently answering my questions, dead.
Just a moment ago I was a child, held and loved by a great crowd. When did I become the adult with children of my own? And how quickly will I too die, and my children, and my children's children?
In the blink of an eye, that's when.
Completely overwhelmed, I closed the albums and hid them away. It was the middle of the day, but I took to my bed, and curled up in a foetal position under the covers. Death shall have no more dominion over us, I muttered, the words of the Christian declaration mocking my fear.
I lay there for almost an hour, totally panicked even as the rational part of my mind reproved me for being silly. It took me that long to remember the point which, as I understand it, is not that I'm going to die (which I am), but that I'm alive right now. And there are things to do that won't get done while I'm hiding paralysed under the covers.
Then I remembered what my five-year-old said a little while back: if everyone in the world lived forever, we wouldn't have enough beds. Reflecting on her words and the images they evoked, I almost smiled. Then I stretched out in my bed, gave thanks for five-year-olds, got up, and went back to work.