When I first left school, the section of the school magazine devoted to past pupils suddenly became of more interest. There was a fascination in seeing who was marrying, who was fathering, and even who was dying. There was a section devoted to those who had attained the great age of 80 during the past three months. In the 1950's, the list of surviving geriatrics was three or four names. Today it spreads over pages. It is a graphic indication of how our life expectancy has increased during my own life.
The result is that these days I get invited to more and more 80th birthday celebrations. Last night it was time to cheer an old friend, but the cheer was decidedly dampened by the announcement that ten days ago he had been diagnosed with lung cancer, that the cancer had metastasized, and that he had only days to live.He was there, looking pale and on a crutch because his sense of balance had been affected, but he greeted us all. Eighty close friends sat down to dinner in his home, after snacking our way through a mountain of oysters. The wine flowed freely - his wife is a true connoisseur of good vintages - and the talk was loud.
Then the speeches started, and they were wonderful. His wife of 30 years spoke of the exciting times they had had together. His eldest stepson produced some of the finest quotes from the ex-editor's writing, and made an interesting observation - in days past, the elderly usually lived with their family, and death was a familiar experience, while sex was something unspoken and behind closed doors. Today, sex is out in the open, and the elderly die in old-age homes so the young never experience it at close hand!
Then it was the turn of our 80-year old host to speak. He used a microphone, but his voice was firm and strong. He told us of his early life, of being tortured by his schoolmates whenever he spoke English in a predominantly Afrikaans area. He told us how, when he was 10, images of the German concentration camps displayed in the window of a Jewish shop in his country town turned him into a hater of Fascism. When he was 15, the story of a Russian escaping from a Stalinist prison camp in Kamchatka turned into a hater of Communism. These two stakes in the ground had defined his political positions all his life.
His early life in Fleet Street had led to a series of alcoholic adventures. He expressed his heartfelt thanks to the kind, warm people of Alcoholics Anonymous who had taken him in, dried him out, and returned him to life. He told of returning to a career in journalism, of being given editorship of a prestigious daily and the public disturbances that followed his appointment, of his time as editor of the largest weekend paper with a circulation of over a million, and how he had successfully annoyed virtually everyone at one time or another. He closed by thanking us all for coming to his party, and he was certain that this was the last time he would see us. Then he moved around the room, talking to each in turn, saying farewell.
I found it incredibly moving - so much so that when someone asked me how I felt about the party, I could only respond with a neutral "Most interesting!" He snorted.
But having had an opportunity to sleep on the matter, I have come to grips with the sadness of impending loss of an old friend. I think it was a marvellous occasion. How often have we thought at a funeral how limited was the picture of the dead one's life - this time we had had a picture from the heart and it rang with glorious truth.How often at the wake after a funeral had we reflected that the dead one would really have enjoyed the party - this time, he had.
I think there should be more celebrations like this. We need a word to describe them. Would "departy" fit the bill?