Fay Vincent: “Man is but a reed ..."

A Good Life in My Dying Days - Despite my decaying body, I can still learn, teach and strive to live with dignity.


We Irish hear about death at an early age, and the experience stays with us. As kids we learn to pray the Hail Mary, which ends with the beseeching request that we be remembered “now and at the hour of our death.” In my teens the prayer of Cardinal John Henry Newman was offered at each vespers service at my boarding school, closing with the line, “Then in his mercy may he grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest and peace at the last.” So when I was recently told that I likely have leukemia, my immediate reaction was, “So this is what it feels like to begin the process of dying.”

I understand that dying begins at birth, but I am 81 and fortunate to have been afforded longevity. I can have no regrets. My diagnosis means the game of life is turning serious and the late innings loom. Perhaps my leukemia will turn out to be the “good” type that is slow moving and not as virulent as some forms of blood cancer. Perhaps not.

My challenge is to seize what time I have left. I will try to be responsible to my wife, family and friends. I will try to avoid becoming the old man in the corner who requires constant attention and care. I cannot let the way my life comes to an end destroy the way I would like to be remembered. Dying is still a part of living, and the way one lives is vital, even in the dying light.

In a culture that so values bright teeth, glowing skin, trim bodies and flowing hairstyles, we elderly try to find ways to stay relevant. In fact, we can offer only the wisdom of experience. If I spend a few hours with the young, maybe I can share some lessons I learned at bitter cost. Maybe I can talk of my mistakes and awkward stumbles. Maybe I can assure the young that wisdom is the daughter of failure yet the mother of success. I remember the acrid tastes of failures, but I quickly forgot the whiff of a success.

As I try to live while confronting an incurable illness, I remember how much I enjoyed the youthful process of learning. Thus I now read and learn from every book possible. I remember one of Blaise Pascal’s “Pensées,” in my own translation: “Man is but a reed, the weakest in nature. A puff of gas, a drop of water is sufficient to kill him. But the difference between him and what kills him is that he knows he is dying.”

Comment: Image source. I hope he is reading the right books!

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