Momento mori is the Latin phrase for “Remember that you must die”. Or, more generalized, “We must remember that we will all die one day”. Yet, most of the time, we live as if life on earth is forever. We don’t want to be reminded of how short it is and that we should learn to count our days – in our time as in all times; in our hectic, urban lifestyle as in more quiet, rural lifestyle; as believers in God and something higher than us, or as agnostics and searchers. Or, as the terminally ill Norwegian Professor in Social Medicine Per Fugelli said in an interview last year: “I don’t know what will come when I die, but I am curious and optimistic.”
He knew the end was coming, and that he would have to leave this life – a life which he praised and loved so much. His cancer had spread; first it was in the intestines, then also in the lungs. He received the best treatment that this world’s medical experts could offer anyone for seven or eight years, from 2009, when his condition was discovered upon return from an Africa travel.
Per Fugelli died last week, one week and one day ago, at the age of 73, with his beloved wife Charlotte, children and grandchildren around him; his nearest family, his ‘flock’, as he liked to call them, reminding us that we must always live with others, never alone, indeed not when we face the ‘last enemy’, as death is termed in religious texts.
This week, his book, Per dør (in English, Per Dies) will be released. His son Aksel Fugelli, who is himself an accomplished writer, will handle the publicity around his father’s book. It is a book about death, but it is indeed also a book about life; and about the time on deathbed in dignity for the one who is going, and for those who still have some time left on this earth. It is a universal topic and text.
Per Fugelli has earlier also written about dying, but more from a professional perspective as a doctor, teacher, and researcher in social medicine, with his own death at an arm length distance. Yet, to write about death and dying includes philosophical discussion, religious hope, as well as everyday thoughts. In the book this week, Per Fugelli’s last one among his fifty or so in all, he set out to explore more intimately what he calls one of the last taboos in our time, maybe especially in the Western culture. There, most people mostly die in hospitals, with specialists, machines and drugs around and in them, and even at a distance from the nearest family and friends. In his last book, Per Fugelli is deeply personal, and at the same time, universal and general. He has therefore written a book for all of us, Norwegians, Pakistanis and everyone else in the wide world – well, who can read Norwegian!
In a draft of a chapter to his book from last year, Per Fugelli wrote about his most private thoughts about his own death approaching: “To die is the real personality test. More true than a CV and a job interview. I will not exist anymore.” And he focuses on his most important messages as a teacher and human being: “All my life I have been a ‘false prophet’, saying that we don’t need to be perfect, but accept good enough. “I have said: “Be satisfied with yourself as an imperfect creation; to have a good health is always adjustment and we should try to find equilibrium between forcefulness and demand; Love yourself – as the damaged goods we all are”, reminding us of some of the concepts and phrases he had enjoyed to coin.
“These ‘commandments’, or pieces of advice, run through my books as echo, sometimes thunder; and I believe in them”, he says. “But as death creeps nearer, I can’t live by them anymore. I notice that I am fading, and I get anguished and desperate. I feel sad when I have to put aside my skills, talent and force. My thoughts are less clear, I dare less, I cancel more, I seek refuge in myself as half the man I used to be – and get rejected. I am unable to accept myself, as a ‘leftover’ from greater times.”
For Per Fugelli’s son, strangely, at first thought, said it was good to read about his father being tormented, distressed and feeling hopelessness. “It was good to see that although he tried to find ‘gold’ all the way to the end in life, it was also good to see that he was distressed, that he knew that he would have to leave this life, and that there was nothing he could do about it. It makes the book more honest”, Aksel Fugelli said in the VG interview, adding that the book is not cosmetic propaganda; it is about his father’s most private and simple thoughts there and then.”
Dear reader, I don’t know if I can add anything to the topic. Or maybe I can, but lack words. Besides, your reflection and words are as important as mine – and for you and yours, even more important than those of Per Fugelli and med. Yet, we must bow in respect and thankfulness, being grateful to a man who wanted to serve his fellow human beings to the bitter end – and a man who wanted to praise his ‘flock’ and the life he loved so much.
In a TV interview recently, the father asked his son what he thought he would be remembered for. As the son paused, the father joked that he should say that he had been a very kind man. The son wanted to use his own words, and said: “You were always very concerned about the well-being of others.” And I am sure, in Per’s and his wife Charlotte’s world, with Aksel and all the others in the ‘flock’, they too were concerned about each other. Could Per get a better testimony than Aksel gave him, and could the father have been more pleased with his son for knowing and saying it. Could God wish for more from his servant, as we are all God’s servants, whether we believe it and feel worthy of it or not?
Per Fugelli didn’t use standard phrases from religious books about his calling in life; but maybe that made his message stronger. Besides, he often used a language that resembled that of the laypeople and clergy where he grew up on the south-west coast of Norway, one of the strongholds of the land’s laypeople’s movement, those who maybe more than others include God in all spheres of life – and death – with the ocean as their nearest neighbour, sometimes fierce, sometimes gentle. People used to say: “Remember, there is also a God.” It was not said using quotes and verses; it was just said in everyday language as a mild reminder to oneself and others; simply knowing that we should live for each other and we should know, one day, will all die, ‘momento mori’, and then, when the struggles and pleasures of this life are all over, it would be good if we could say: I did my best, and my main concern was others; I tried to help build ‘God’s temple to people’ – and ‘people’s temple to God’.
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.