In our hearts, we know: the only certainty in life is death. It comes for every one of us.
The uncertainty of the hour of death is also a source of grief in our lives, someone said, and they’re indisputably right. That death is coming, on whispering feet, and we know not when.
For many years, science – and people themselves, making wiser decisions about what to put in their bodies – has pushed back the tide of death. The years between 1916 and 1920 were notable for that: following the first Great War, people just started living longer.
Babies born in England or Wales had a life expectancy of just 41 years back then. Their descendants now routinely live into their Eighties. China and India have recorded the fastest gains in life expectancy of any societies in recorded history, and they have the economies to prove it: a hundred years ago, their people would have been lucky to survive past their late twenties. Now, in India, the average is 70 years.
Since the great global influenza pandemic a Century ago, life expectancies have actually doubled. The reasons why are myriad and multiple: defeating cholera with better water and sewage systems; embracing pasteurization to kill bacteria in foods, saving billions of lives; the discovery of antibiotics, to slow and kill the growth of bacteria in our bodies; the development of vaccines to fight polio and measles and more.
We collectively live, then, in an era where few before us have lived as long. While we have not defeated death, we have greatly delayed his arrival at our doors.
In Canada, while we live among the longest in the world, death has naturally continued to claim us in different ways. Before the Covid-19 pandemic commenced in earnest, the leading cause of death, year after year, was what is called “malignant neoplasms” – cancerous tumors.
Diseases of the heart come next, and the cerebrovascular afflictions – strokes, mainly. Respiratory diseases and influenzas after that. And so on.
The pandemic revised the list, everywhere. In New York, just next door, life expectancy dropped by about five full years in 2020, the dark year when the coronavirus was in full bloom. There, the death rate doubled what it had been the previous year. Across in the US, life expectancy went from 79 years to 76.
In Canada, lives were cut shorter, too, but not by nearly as much. However, Covid became one of death’s grim medallists in Canada, beaten out only by cancer and heart diseases. And, globally – because Covid laughed at the notion of borders – seven million people were killed by it. Another 700 million got it, and about 100 million are still dealing with it, their lives upended by long Covid.
Covid death counts have largely faded from view, and people have mostly gone back to believing that they will not experience something like that again. But, generally, the odds are pretty good (30 per cent, they say) there’ll be another pandemic in the next decade or so: the ubiquitousness of international travel, and the stupidity of humans, practically guarantees it.
But, even if we somehow escape death from an unseen virus, we all – right now, this week – face another existential threat: the world is getting dramatically hotter. You don’t need to be a scientist to notice. And, at this stage, it doesn’t matter whether we did it to ourselves, or it’s the result of some preordained Biblical event – it’s well underway, and no one seems to know how to stop it.
So, we in the media report records being broken until no one is shocked enough to pay attention anymore, and a Texas woman (insincerely) claims to bake a loaf of bread in her mailbox: it’s become the stuff of bathos.
The reality is that a hotter planet will continue to affect the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the shelter we seek. Smart people, educated people, say that the future will include wars over water, and the mass displacement of people seeking food and refuge from the heat.
So, yes: in the hundred years since World War I, we have delayed – but never denied – death. Sooner or later, death comes for us all. It is relentless.
And, this week, he came for my mother, Lorna, who lived a long and wonderful life. We love her and we will miss her, always.
But death always prevails in the end. And it always breaks your heart.