I used to think people who complained of having "the flu" were whingers who couldn't admit to simply having a bad cold. Then I got the flu myself.
That was in mid-December, 1999, and for the next two or three weeks, I barely left my bed. Actually, I don't know for sure that what I had was the flu, as I never saw a doctor. There was no way I could have gotten myself out of the house, and I was too delirious to think about phoning the doctor and asking him to come see me (they actually do that here in the UK, as implausible as Americans may find it).
During those weeks time stopped and eventually disappeared. I drifted in and out of consciousness, mostly out, sweating until the sheets were soaked, then wrapping myself in a blanket on the floor until they were semi-dry again. I doubt my condition was helped by my medication of choice: Jameson's Whisky and codeine tablets. Eventually I ran out of both; by then I'd also gone at least a week without eating. Looking back on it now, I realise that I was sicker than I'd ever been or have been since, that I possibly might have been in danger of dying. But at the time, I wasn't thinking about that. I wasn't thinking about anything, really; I couldn't if I'd wanted to.
Sometime in the week before Christmas my condition improved a little. I was able to get up and go to the kitchen for a bit of juice, though the effort left me knocked out for the rest of the day. Then I had a relapse, and spent another three days mostly unconscious. When I woke up, the television was on. I don't know if it had been on all along, or if I had turned it on by rolling over onto the remote control. A cartoon was playing, something about a little boy and a snowman.
Having grown up in America, I was unaware of the UK Christmas phenomenon that is The Snowman. Here, it's broadcast every year, and virtually everyone knows it, but I was seeing it for the first time, and, in my condition, through the eyes of a delirious child. Just as I was beginning to sort out the plot, the snowman took the boy by the hand and they floated up into the sky to the haunting tune of "Walking In The Air."
It was beautiful and, at the same time, terrifying. For the first time, I understood how sick I'd been, and that I was far from better. It was if I were the little boy, and the Snowman was taking me on a sample tour of the heavens, as if to say, "You can float away with me now, or stay down there on earth and suffer." In that moment I had a brief glimmering of what it might be like to die.
After that I got better. On Christmas Day, I was able to get up and walk around a bit, and by New Year's Eve, dressed up warmly, albeit a bit shaky and two stone (28 pounds) lighter, I was down along the Thames with three million other slightly woozy revellers, watching the fireworks usher in a new millennium.
But ever since then, I've never been able to hear "Walking In The Air" - and you hear it a lot this time of year - without being carried back to those feverish days when I didn't know where I was, didn't know if I'd be coming back, and didn't much care. The strangest thing is how nostalgic I feel for that time. I wouldn't wish the way I was feeling then on my worst enemy, but there was a certain comfort that came with being utterly powerless, with having to surrender to forces greater than myself, to relax and let them carry me where they might.
Today I heard the song again, while standing in the queue at Tesco, and suddenly it came to me: as much as we fear illness and death, as much as we spend our days and our lives trying to fend them off, we're drawn to them as well. One part of us wants to live forever, and another to die today if not sooner. The "live forever" component holds sway as long as it can, but just as a river knows it's going to end up in the sea no matter how hard it might try to do otherwise, the death wish gains on us, patiently, inexorably, always with the grim confidence that it will have its way in the end.
And at some point we begin to understand that that's all right, that there will come a time when death will no longer seem a terrifying fate to be evaded, but rather more of a relief, a blessed and comforting end to a life well and fully lived.
Or not. What we really fear, it seems, is not death so much as death before our time. Today, standing in the supermarket, surrounded by dozens of people buzzing with energy as they did their last minute shopping, with the lights and sounds and sights and smells of the holidays all around me, I would have liked to believe that my time is still far in the future. Surely some of these other people would be gone long before me. Perhaps that old lady in front of me, counting out the last of her coins to pay for a packet of Silk Cut and a copy of the Daily Mail. The unmistakable scent of unbearable loneliness wafted through the room, and as quickly as it appeared, was gone, replaced by the false jollity and real joy of Christmas coming round once more. The old lady clutched her cigarettes and newspaper, pulled her shawl up tight against the chill, and set out for home, perhaps to put her feet up by the fire with a nice cup of tea and dream, like any and all of us, a little dream of forever.