I wrote this piece perhaps five years ago. When I remember that my oldest son is nearly 40 mortality stabs me to the heart. Even reading this sentence again replays the slight internal lurch. For a moment I am possessed by panic.

Now why is this? It isn’t fear for John, God knows, or for my other children. They have their own lives to lead, their own deaths to die. But nor is it fear for myself. I am not overly concerned about my death—at least, not so far as I can make out. I hope it will not be unduly painful, but the death itself seems, at worst, a thing. The thing, I suppose. Do I delude myself? Probably.

It’s not that I lack any reminder: I have thought of my own death habitually since I was a young man. I used to try to visualize not-being. Absurd as this sounds, I would lie on my back and relax all my muscles, one by one, until I felt utterly slack, and then hold my breath and try to imagine lying dead under a prairie sky. The integrity of this simulation was somewhat compromised by my heart; it wasn’t having anything to do with this tomfoolery. And the muscles became increasingly impatient to take up their normal work. So much for imaginary sensations of a state which, by definition, precludes sensation.

At that time I was much impressed by Michael Drayton’s essay On Death, a grisly memento mori typical of his time. “It is a mighty change that is made by the death of every person, and it is visible to us who are alive. Reckon but from the sprightfulness of youth and the fair cheeks and the full eyes of childhood, from the vigorousness and strong flexure of the joints of five and twenty, to the hollowness and dead paleness, to the loathsomeness and horror of a three days’ burial, and we shall perceive the distance to be very great and very strange.” Strange indeed. It is a grim text, but it did not appall.

Today I try to clear the mind so as truly to apprehend, even for a moment, the reality that one day, others will be in the world and I will not. This is ‘real,’ but the core of the reality eludes me. I try with all my energy to imagine it as a bracket around my own existence, but before it can take emotional shape it collapses into mere fact. The skull in the hand, initially so evocative, in no time at all becomes a curio on the shelf to be dusted once a week. The contemplation of death decays steadily into perfunctory ritual, like a paternoster. A fundamental limitation of being conscious, evidently.

The character Dot in Rose Macaulay’s novel The Towers of Trebizond approaches her own demise thus: “And when the years have all passed, there will gape the uncomfortable and unpredictable dark void of death, and into this I shall at last fall headlong, down and down and down, and the prospect of that fall, that uprooting, that rending apart of body and spirit, that taking off into so blank an unknown, drowns me in mortal fear and mortal grief.” This is fiction speaking; was the writer herself subject to this dismay?

I cannot summon up such fear in myself. Why then this clutch at the throat when I see my children as adults? Is it perhaps because we see the lives of others as tragic entities, whereas we ourselves are always in process, always centred at our own point in time, with our own past reeling away in the rear-view mirror and the future to be dealt with extempore?

Does anyone go gentle into that good night? People do go willingly. People kamikaze. Some have been known to die so others could live. And others on principle: Latimer’s words from the sixteenth century are unerasable. “We shall light such a fire today in England as I trust shall never be put out.” Words that thrill and chill. I cannot imagine such courage; I would recant at the drop of a hat. So I cannot ascribe my facile, shallow contemplation of death to bravery. I wonder if it is a surface scam that I practice on myself. Am I in what is called a state of denial? Denial certainly exists; I see it in people around me every day.

Meanwhile, I grow old. I see myself in fancy standing on the bridge of a ship. The instruments have never been so accurate, my uniform is freshly pressed, I can see to the stars. But there’s a plate sprung here, a leak there—well actually, quite a lot of leaks. The fact is, there is water over the floor-boards. The fact is, the thing is sinking under my feet. In my more exuberant moments I say, with a fine devil-may-care wave of the hand, “What the hell! I’ll sail the son-of-a-gun under!” Defiant words, eh? What will I say in ten or twenty years time with the water at my elbow?