Notes from the Library

End of term & death

Still very sad about everyone leaving. Have huge amounts of direction, since getting ready for trip to Korea, but have never felt so directionless as I do now. I'm thinking about the old and the new: went to greet some second years finishing their exams today, was the only third year there; these will be the people I am around next year. Called to several third years across the quad to get them to come and hug goodbye, since they won't be.

One of our philosophy tutors, Bob Hargrave, who I've mentioned on this blog before, is dying. He has been very, very ill all term, tortuously making his way to college each day, taking over an hour for a journey that I can do in about seven minutes. Convinced he was riddled with cancer, Bob refused to go to the hospital to see what was going on for weeks. Someone close to him in Balliol's admin staff, after I pointed this out to her, managed to get him to go, though it took a great deal of effort, and now some weeks later we know that it is indeed incurable cancer, though we don't yet know how long left he has—but he could well be gone before the end of 2012, even perhaps before the end of the summer. He certainly seems to think so. This afternoon I saw him and, just in case, thanked him for all his teaching and other things, and he told me to "have a nice life in case I don't see you again" though I think he is probably being overly pessimistic there.

This is very sad. We are all taking it in different ways. Putting aside the possibility I am unconsciously suppressing masses of grief to come out later, I think it is okay. Bob has lived a complex and powerful life. He's probably been very unhappy for most of it. But mortality allows us to draw a line around the life and say, this was Bob, and what a life it was because it represents a worldview, and way of living that out, tangled up with his relationships with friends, relatives and all of his students. And it seems to me that by living powerfully like that, really, that is enough, and far more than any of the rest of us are likely to get out of our lives.

I'm not sure I have a point at all here and I'm certainly not convinced that I've made it in the previous paragraph. So let me try to apply it to differences between my attitude and those of my friends. The reason Bob is in this state is because, as one friend put it, "he's always got at least two of a glass of wine, strong coffee and a cigarette in his hands at any one time". So some people say, "if only he hadn't smoked so much, he wouldn't be dying so young at ~65". But these things are essentially integral to who Bob is. Take them away, and sure you might get ten or fifteen more years of life (perhaps even another quarter-century), but would that be worth losing the man we know? I don't think so.

None of this means it isn't deeply, deeply upsetting for me to have him dying, and then to have him dead. Nor does it mean that his life is appropriate for anyone else. I'm not going to smoke and drink my way into an early grave, nor would I recommend it to any of my friends. But if it was the case, as I don't believe it to be, that such things were necessary conditions of living meaningfully, I'd choose it over 90 years of "happiness" in a heartbeat.

In a few months I might try to write a mini-obituary about who Bob actually was, which I haven't at all done here, but it's not the time for that yet.

Beautifully put. I think those of us privileged to have Bob as a friend felt that way. His pull was magnetic. You have probably heard the sad news of his death already. I think it would be lovely to link this piece to the blog that Balliol have set up to commemorate him.

comment posted by Fiona Macaulay at Thu Aug 23 09:20:48 2012

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