It is as if the seasons have shifted and the cold that would so often have been associated with the beginning of the year is now spread over the land in the sharp glinting sunlight of an earlier dawn.  Large clusters of snowdrops hang their heads under the trees and beside the hedges.  Sporadic daffodils nod their yellow trumpets, testament to the false spring of a warm winter.  Now there are primroses at the side of the lane, soft colours beneath the tiny, fledgling leaves tentatively appearing in the shorn, stubby hedges.

What is a life?  A period of time between birth and death?  A life is not confined to time though: a baby born dead, a child taken from its parents, a life ‘cut short’, a ‘long and fulfilled existence’, are all lives.  The trees, the animals, the birds and the rocks are all lives – not lived by a human definition, but lived all the same.  So what is the life of a mother that moves from independence to immobility, from the sharp focus of a mind honed on manipulation to vague recollections surrounded by scatterings of the past?

This is her life - slumped in the chair that is the centre of her existence.  Sparse white hair covers her head; it is dropped forward, nodding in a deep sleep.  A huddle of unrecognised clothes, white knitted socks loosely cover her swollen, discoloured legs and there is the unmistakable smell of indignity.  The carer gently shakes the old lady’s legs to alert her to the arrival of two of her sons.  Her head is lifted in a movement that manages to express incomprehension and pain.  Her eyes are red, the right one shows a raw exposure and there are unnatural crimson blemishes creeping down each cheek, violent against the white grey folds of skin.  After a few brief seconds she recognises her sons and greets them in a high forced voice that neither had ever heard before – the voice of an imperious duchess from another age, a caricature of control and superiority.

So the mother is no longer the mother, but has shifted into some kind of creature that exists beyond any attempt to influence, to shape another’s existence; instead she clings with the desperation of the drowning to some semblance of living her own life.  She is profoundly deaf and can only be effectively engaged in communication through writing on cards; though this does not dilute the cascading, unrecognisable sound of her voice – high and penetrating.  Yet she does not seem to be unhappy, the bitterness of a few weeks ago appears to have been superseded by a more childlike connection with what is going on around her; a connection where she is centre of attention.

The slow ebbing of life is visible in the body that deteriorates over the time between each visit.  She eats with some relish and the rose tinted wine is enjoyed, but food spills over her clothes and there is a frustrating mouthful of liquid that cannot be drunk as her head has dropped to a point where she is no longer able to make that final, satisfying tilt to sink those last dregs of wine.  She moves with pain on account of a fall she had two days ago, lifting herself out of the wheelchair is slow with stoic facial expressions and subdued intake of breath.  She is as determined as ever and will not demonstrate any weakness.  As her sons leave there is a look of desolation in her watery eyes, not of anger as there might have been in the past, but of abandonment – a look that may have had its genesis many years ago in her own childhood.

This is the life of an individual, unique as a product of environment, culture and experience; separate, fulfilled or not, independent.  Is it then that a life is the process of individual progression from birth to death?  Or is there something that goes beyond the individual, that division between mother and son: an expression of humanity that is not divided?  Is there life that is indivisible beyond humanity? 


If so, then what is death?