Putin, William Shatner and my mum got me thinking about the

Sixteen months ago, my mother – riddled with cancer – was told she had two months to live.

I raced to Sydney at the onset of her illness and have been her carer since. Over these months she’s endured radiotherapy, chemotherapy and now the doctors giving up on therapy at the same time world events have weathered all of us. I reached my mother’s house just in time for us to be confined together for Sydney’s long pandemic lockdown. Mum herself caught coronavirus during a brief stay on a cancer ward. Then my partner and I caught the wretched virus and were cut off from her, trapped with it at home.

We all survived, and so my mother – born in 1941, at the bleakest point of the second world war – has now also lived to see the last embers of British empire snuff themselves out, a Mussolini fangirl elected to rule Italy and antisemitism in the public square once more. Mum turned 21 only a few weeks before the Cuban missile crisis. Today, the tyrant of Russia rains missiles at civilians and threatens nuclear attack; Mum was in the palliative care hospital when US president Joe Biden warned that the consequence of a Russian nuke is Armageddon.

Frankly, after these 16 months spent in the growing shadow of my mother’s death, I feel uniquely prepared for it. Between her increasing rounds of painkillers, Mum jokes that depending where the missiles fall or the radioactive winds may blow, she may yet outlive us all … if only by a couple of minutes.

This is cancer ward optimism. I’m in awe of it. Every time Elon Musk tweets ignorant nonsense about the war in Ukraine, humanity’s exhausting battles against cancer cells, pandemics, dictators and dickheads seem an awful lot of trouble to go to for a species that’s just as desperately inclined to encourage them. I can’t determine if my cynicism is situational, inherent or generational. As one of the cold war children of generation X, I saw too much of myself in this tweet:

President: …nuclear Armageddon

Gen X smiles: finally thank god

— Gabe Hudson (@gabehudson) October 9, 2022

And yet, the more time you spend on a cancer ward, in a doctor’s office or with a community nurse managing the care of someone you love, the less your own cynicism – or fear – matters than the hard-earned expertise of those who know more about the relevant issues than you do. The same doctor who gave my mother two months to live adjusted his treatments, extending her life and his own predictions accordingly. At present, experts do not calculate a high likelihood of Vladimir Putin unleashing the means of his own certain annihilation. Until the facts change, it is impractical and self-indulgent to disbelieve them.

Even so, as the war drags on, and the pandemic drags on, and climate catastrophe looms rather than merely impends, I have the most profound gratitude for the circumstances that have allowed me to care for my mother for this length of time, and reconcile to her death, and my death, and death as a concept. A quote from William Shatner describing his own reckoning with mortality from his recent trip into space went viral online last week when he described it as “like a funeral”. “It was among the strongest feelings of grief I have ever encountered,” said the actor from Star Trek. “The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness.”

They call this phenomenon the “overview effect” and I suspect the resonance of the quote stems not only from Shatner’s confrontation with the fragility of precious, singular, finite life on Earth. It’s also that our most meaningful orientation in whatever life we have is towards the warm, nurturing places represented by our closest relationships.

Cells mutate, plagues rage, missiles fall and an autocratic Russian narcissist has control of a nuclear arsenal. Denial of death cannot delay it; any one of us may have only months, or only minutes. In the coldness of space, I will never regret spending mine in the service of the people I love.

Van Badham is a Guardian Australia columnist