My closest friend in all the world died this month. He died in London, at home, in his own room, surrounded by his wife and children. He died only a little short of the allotted Biblical span of three score and ten. He died full of honors and dearly beloved of many. Nevertheless he did not die peacefully. He died hard.
"Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage, against the dying of the light," wrote Dylan Thomas in a poem addressed to his father. Like Dylan Thomas, my friend was a Welshman, and that is how he died: not gently but full of rage. I know this not because I saw it with my own eyes, but from a mutual friend of ours who quoted Dylan Thomas' lines in describing for me how the last hours had gone.
By an eerie coincidence, another mutual friend, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, fell back on those very same lines in his remarks at the funeral of Sen. Jacob Javits. In every other respect an altogether different kind of person from Jacob Javits, my friend too had known for many months that he had a terminal illness; and he too responded to the sentence of imminent death with a ferocious determination to live and live and live until the moment he died.
With every passing day he grew weaker and weaker, but day after day he forced himself to do things that no one around him could believe he had the strength to do. He was in unendurable pain, but he would take only enough medication to dull its edge because more than that insulated him from the only life he had left to live.
In deciding to die in this way, my friend never, I think, doubted that he was making the right choice. And yet the last time I saw him, about three months ago, I could see that he was in spiritual torment over his inability to resign himself, to make his peace with death.
That much underrted philosopher, George Santayana, once said: "There is no God and Mary is His mother." My friend would never have said flatly, "There is no God" -- he would have thought it brazen and crass -- but if he ever had, he would certainly have added, "and the Bible is His word." Raised in a devout Presbyterian family, but finally unable to sustain the literal faith of his fathers, still he never lost his belief in the spiritual truth of Christianity. Specifically, he never lost his belief in the idea that the reason we are here on Earth is to serve God and to praise Him.
Serving God as my friend came to understand it translated into devoting oneself to the service of something greater than self -- in his own case it was a great national institution, but almost anything large would do -- and praising God translated into praising life.
Although hymns and hosannas were certainly necessary to glorify what deserved to be glorified, one was not mainly supposed to praise life by verbal affirmation. Mainly one praised it through a readiness to enjoy what there was to be enjoyed, to relish what there was to be relished, to savor what there was to be savored, and most especially to accept every invitation to a good laugh that the world had to offer.
All this my friend did, and more. Like Falstaff, he was not only witty in himself, but "the cause that wit was in other men." And even more than wit, he was the cause that laughter was in other men. His own laugh was so loud and boisterous that -- I do not exaggerate -- it became famous from one end of England to the other. Nor do I exaggerate when I say that his entry into a room invariably made everyone in it smile, in happy anticipation of the laughter he was sure to bring.
That such a man -- a man so alive that thinking of him dead seems a contradiction in terms -- should rage against death is not surprising. But why should such a man torment himself over dying in a state of rage?
He hinted at the answer in telling me that one day, when his physical pain was at its most unbearable, he turned in a desperate search for help to a cantata about dying by Johann Sebastian Bach, Ich habe genug -- "I have had enough." And he asked himself: "If Bach can say it, why can't I?" He meant that if Bach, in his eyes perhaps the greatest of all men, was permitted to yearn for death as an escape from the awful miseries of this life, why should he, an ordinary mortal, be required to go on raging?
But of course he knew why. Bach, who believed in an afterlife, was permitted to serve God and praise Him by welcoming death as a deliverance into the arms of his savior. My friend could only serve God and praise Him by cherishing life on this Earth to the very end and by refusing to curse it.
And so even, or rather especially, in the extremity of his suffering, he did not curse life -- neither with the words of his mouth nor, I feel sure, in the meditations of his heart. Least of all did he curse it as so many do nowadays when they declare that life is worth having only when it is good and, worse yet, when they act on that satanic idea.
My friend's name was Huw Wheldon. Though he would have accused me of blasphemy for saving so, he taught everyone who was given the great and blessed gift of knowing him -- including, I suspect, people who knew him only from the television screen -- how, in what he himself called these spiritually illiterate times, when it is so hard to die with the peaceful resignation of a true believer, it is still possible to live a truly godly life.