Living life, not talking death

Sunday columnist Peter Leith is fast closing on 92, and despite being deaf and legally blind, he sees and hears more than many of us.

In the halcyon days of the Colosseum – the ‘family entertainment centre’ in ancient Rome – it was customary for gladiators about to fight each other to the death, to parade before the emperor’s box, raise a clenched fist to shoulder height and chant: ‘Morituri te salutant’ (we who are about to die salute you).

Today, all over the world, there are people facing a death sentence. What can we, who have not – or not yet – been given a death sentence, do to help?

To my great surprise, I have found that quite a few people who are living with a death sentence want to talk – not about their health, but about their life before the diagnosis.

Once they get started, they often become totally engrossed in reminiscing. Cheerful and happy memories.

Read: A little humility is harder for some

As a would-be storyteller myself, I have been fortunate to meet, listen to, and get to know, a number of people with terminal illnesses.

One such group, men in their late 60s and older, meet regularly at each other’s homes for ‘a yarn’.

Sometimes, by prior agreement, each man may bring a stubbie or two but, most often, a mug of tea or coffee is sufficient lubricant to keep the conversation rolling along.

Most of the men are from a rural or trade background and have been ‘outdoor’ workers, which is probably why so many have melanomas. But apart from. an occasional ‘have to miss next week – doctor’s appointment’ or ‘it’s a bit of a bugger’, they never talk about what is killing them.

Read: Perfect bag for bone-saws and beers

The conversation lives on reminiscences – and what a fertile field of Australiana those reminiscences are!

It is both astonishing and immensely rewarding to learn firsthand how many otherwise ”laconic-to-the-point-of-being-mute’ Aussie men are great storytellers.

From country race meetings to bush dances and the Friday night chook raffle at the local pub, they have seen and done it all. They are a goldmine of stories about a vanishing Australia. And therein lies immortality.

Have you been privy to such conversations with people who have a definite end date? Has there been a similar focus on great memories, not desperate times? Why not share your experiences in the comments section below?

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