Chapter 18

The living daylights

 Once, when I was a young sailor aboard an oil tanker, I witnessed a brawl outside a bar in a New Jersey seaport. There were two drunk men fighting with their fists. One man was a head taller and obviously stronger than the other, and had a heavy punch. He really did give the small man a terrible beating.

            The small man went down, kneeling on the sidewalk, bleeding from his mouth. Friends of the big man came and held his arms, to stop the fight before it ended in a killing.

            Then the small man rose to his feet, spat blood and yelled at the big man: ”I would like to beat the living daylights out of you!”

             The big man laughed hoarsely, turned his back on the small man and walked away.

            With my sailor friends I went into the bar, which I think was named after and owned by the famous boxer Rocky Marciano, who had recently given up fighting in the prize ring.

            The incident of the street fight happened in 1964, and my memory of it is a bit clouded. I have forgotten which seaport the fight took place in, if it was Sewaren or Port Elizabeth. I don’t remember what we drank, if it was beer or Seven-Seven, a sweetish drink mixed of Seagram’s Seven Year Old Canadian Whiskey and Seven-Up soda water. I guess it was Seven-Seven, and that we had too much of it. I faintly remember going to the lavatory to vomit. We young sailors were late arriving at the ship which was to depart during the night, when unloading of our crude oil cargo was completed, and the first mate shouted some hard words at us, words that I do not remember.  

            But the small man’s words about the living daylights have stuck to my mind. What, I thought, are the living daylights that can be beaten out of a man? I still think about that sometimes; the living daylights.

            Such living daylights must be the lights inside us, which we collect during sunny days of our lives. When we die, the living daylights are beaten out of us.

             Friday evening April 25th I delivered a lecture to a group of medical doctors from the Moss region. The group of 30 doctors, mostly general practitioners, was assembled in a meeting at a conference centre called Jeløy Radio on the Jeløya Peninsula outside Moss. The centre is located on the premises of a radio transmitting station which was closed down some years ago. Jeløy Radio handled the short wave radio communication between Norway and the United States of America. The tall antennas still stand, and are protected as monuments of our cultural heritage. Now the aerials are quiet, but the wind makes the slim steel constructions and the supporting steel wires sing.

            I spoke about my experiences as a patient passing through the different levels of the Norwegian public health system. To kindle the interest of the audience, I spoke as frankly as I could about my heart operation and the cancer cure.

             I said that I never asked the doctors at Rikshospitalet where mye mechanical heart valve was produced. Why didn’t I ask? I was afraid to get the answer that this new part of my body was American. It would be tough for a Socialist heart to have an American part.

             This statement made the doctors laugh.

             I said that I hoped my valve was Swiss made, since I very much trust the Swiss when it comes to fine mechanics.

             I’ll not go into further detail about my lecture because health care is not the theme of this book. My conclusion was that we have a good and well-working public health system in Norway, and that we have to keep it up and invest as much as we can in this sector.

              I praised doctors and health personnel for having saved my life.

             Then I ended my speech by talking about death. In a secularized society like Norway medical doctors have taken over some of the tasks of priesthood. When we are very sick and afraid of dying many of us will not call a priest, but a doctor.

             But we do not want to die. In modern society there is a strong denial of death. We have got the impression that modern medicine has made it possible for us to live our earthly lives forever. We deny dying. We tell the doctors that they must fix us, repair the damages, get us going, even if we with part of our minds know that this is not an option, that the end is near.

              In this eager wish to live on against all odds we are supported by our families and friends, by the whole society that do not think dying is natural.

              The doctor’s role is to tell us all the bitter truth when the ship’s bell tolls, when the time has come for the last voyage.   

              I said that I hope I’ll have the courage to accept such a message when my time is up, and that I’ll be able to convey this to family and friends, that I’ll not be beating about the bush.

              There was a short debate.

             One of the doctors, who works at at home for the elderly (”sykehjem”) said that in a hospital the death of a patient is a defeat for doctors and staff, but that in a home for the elderly the death of a patient is the natural exit.       

            Another doctor, Lorentz Nitter, who is a friend of mine from boyhood and nine years of school, and who also works at a home for old people, said that death for the old is a question about dignity. If a very old patient is sick with pneumonia or another illness in the elderly, the best solution may not be to send the patient into a hospital and pump him or her full of anitbiotics, but to let death come peacefully. 

             I was offered a full dinner after the meeting. At the dinner table Dr. Nitter spoke about his work with senile (”demente”) patients at he Orkerød home for the elderly. He found the work to be a positive challenge.

             I did not mention my own fear of becoming senile. It is a looming fear. Every time I hear about men my age who have got the Alzheimer disease, I start to shiver. I have heard from doctors that the best method to prevent Alzheimer is to be intellectually active.

             Guess why I’m writing like I have Old Nick (”Gammel-Erik”) at my heels!

             We talked about the home for the elderly in Rygge municipality, Ryggeheimen, which is now being extended with a new building to give room to the coming wave of elderly people, of which I’ll hopefully be a part (it is; if I live that long).

             I said that Ryggeheimen looks fine to me, but that it is a pity there is no view of the sea. I added that in a municipality which borders on the Oslo Fjord the home for the elderly should have been built on the seashore.

             And, yes, I consider it an example of bad local government planning that Ryggeheimen was built on a flat spot in the middle of a forest. I wouldn’t like my last view of the world to be the view of a cluster of spruce-fir trees (”grantrær”). I find the spruces around Ryggeheimen to be a gloomy lot.

         If I had a God to pray to, I would pray that I die at home, of old age and with a relatively clear mind, and that my last view be of the Blood Tree with the waters of the Oslo Fjord in the background.

          Saturday I write. Sunday we prepare for a family dinner party in the evening, to celebrate the 30th birthday of the youngest of the two daughters my companion and I have together.

            I have the radio tuned to the NRK P2, and listen to the Sunday morning magazine, Søndagsavisa. There is an interview with a bishop, Finn Wagle. He has served as a bishop of the Nidaros bishopric, and as such has been the leading figure (”preses”) of The Church of Norway. He is now going into retirement. This Sunday he is to do his last sermon in the Nidaros Cathedral in the city of Trondheim. Nidaros Cathedral was built in Medieval times, and is gigantic for as small country like ours. It is the most impressive building in Norway.

            Wagle speaks about his wistfulness upon retiring.

            ”It is sadly that I leave the church,” he says. ”When I grow older and bend over, I have the Christian faith to straighten me up.”

            I envy the bishop that he has this staff of belief to support him.

              It is raining. Quiet spring rain, very good for the vegetation. In a week the countryside’s colour will be transformed from grey to green. The lilacs (”syriner”) groving close to the veranda already have leaves the size of fingernails. In a couple of days the birch trees will unfold their light green leaves. The greenery will dominate the landscape until October.

            I listen to the distant drumming of a woodpecker. Carrying my binoculars I go out in the oak wood along the neighbouring farm’s fields to find out what kind of a woodpecker it is.

            When I get close, the bird stops pecking and takes to its wings, following the habit of woodpeckers. But I can see its colurs; black, red and white – the colours of a flag. We Norwegians call the bird ”flaggspett” because of the flag colours. The name in English is greater spotted woodpecker.

            It is quite a big bird, with a formidable beak. Why is it that it is so shy? Woodpeckers have to be shy to survive. The sound they make when pecking is a signal to the birds of prey.

             We have no eagles here, but there are hawks. The goshawk (”hønsehauk”) is a woodpecker hunter, I think. Having given themselves away with their sound, the woodpeckers fly off when they sense the slightest danger.

            Dinner is ready. Family members and a couple of close friends arrive.

            We have a good party.

            I do not mention to anybody that I am writing a book in English. I’ll keep that a secret as long as I can.  

            I am asked about my health. I answer that I try to put cancer behind me. And I really do. It is not easy. Cancer is such an insidious illness. Cancer is sly and deceitful.

            One of the female visitors takes a look at the pile of books and pamphlets I have received from Christian readers.

            ”You keep all the material they send you?” she asks.

            ”Yes, I do not throw anything. I never throw books.”

            She asks me, jokingly, if I feel I am pushed, if I am on the verge of becoming a believer.

            I answer that I have a lot of resistance in me. I have an open mind – for being as old as I am – but my mind is not wide open. I do not want my mind to be invaded. My thoughts are not holy to me, but they are my thoughts.

            ”Possibly, ” I say, ”the Christians will have to beat the living daylights out of me to make me believe in the Gospel.”

            ”Do they beat you? I mean, do they beat you mentally?”

            ”Yes, but it is a beating that reminds me of the woodpeckers drumming on a tree. I get some holes in me. But I never heard of a woodpecker who chopped down a whole tree.”


       Chapter 17

Chapter 19