The best in life is yet to be: an essay on healthy mortality

Another birthday has come and gone. Since this one did not end in a zero, it did not deserve particular attention. But since I am in my sixties now, most of my life is firmly in the past. I’ll be fortunate if only two-thirds of it is in my past. Aside from a nice dinner of meatloaf and seeing If Beale Street could talk at a local arts cinema, it was like any other day.

Something I find curious about aging is that the one thing that bothered me about it growing up – death – doesn’t particularly bother me anymore. Death should be less of an abstraction at my age. We had our next-door neighbor die about a year ago. Both my parents are dead; my father curiously died three years ago on my birthday. My daughter slips into her thirties this year. We are on on our fourth set of cats. Living in a 55+ community, with most of my fellow residents older than me, it appears that advancing age doesn’t seem to bother them either. The oldest is 93 and he still gets around and enjoys life.

I’m trying to figure out why this is. It could be because I am in reasonably good health and have an excellent chance of enjoying another twenty years or more in good health. Part of it could be because we are both retired and don’t have the hassle of working or worrying about money anymore. But I’m also coming to think that a lot of it is due to not being religious. In my early twenties it’s fair to say I wasn’t religious, but I was still under a religious hangover. In my case, it was a Roman Catholic hangover. It clouded my thinking about death.

With a few exceptions, religion does much more to make us anxious about death than provide a balm to address it. It does seem ironic because if you check off the right checkboxes and have true faith, then eternal life is something of a given, albeit in a different state. And we are promised that in this case our next eternal and spiritual life will be a lot happier than this one.

For many of us, life is more chore than blessing. I don’t have to step far from my home to see it. During the recent arctic blast, two homeless people died of hypothermia in a tent behind a McDonalds restaurant in Greenfield, a town twenty-five miles north of us. The local homeless shelters could not accommodate the overflow crowds. I can see the homeless wandering downtown or holding cardboard signs at some prominent intersections. As miserable as life appears to be for them though, they still cling to it. For retired people like me without much in the way of worries about descending into poverty, life at this stage is exactly what I wanted out of life and finally received. It feels like a blessing. And it is, at least partly. I was able to hang onto a good paying job with benefits long enough to reach a good retirement, and there were no intervening medical complications to strip it all away.

No wonder so many retired people are happy with their lives. Death is unavoidable but so is life. And life is often very complex to navigate, and gets more complex everyday. In my early twenties, my real angst was likely not about some inevitable future death, but whether I could pay the rent next month. It was likely that the latter fed the former.

It used to be that life was a much more miserable experience. Retirement was virtually unheard of. Many of us lived with massive pain and discomfort we could do little to remedy. Most of us died long before we were at a retirement age, often painfully and violently. If we reached old age, we depended on our offspring to tend to us when our bodies grew frail. Medicine though only became useful in the last hundred years. Social safety nets did not exist then; living in general was precarious and scary. Retirement was a luxury for the truly rich, if they survived long enough to enjoy it. Now most of us will reach retirement age and increasingly most of us can enjoy it.

In those darker and scarier times, religion promised not only salvation but also something more important: eternal comfort in some future afterlife, which was naturally appealing because for most of us life was trial and tribulation. These days though many of us can have that comfort right now, or at least when we reach retirement age. Is it any surprise then that in countries with high standards of living that religion seems to be fading away? It’s not just Western Europe; it’s happening here in the United States too, albeit more slowly. It’s fading faster in places that are more prosperous. Hence you find more atheists in New Jersey, and fewer in Deep South Alabama. Prosperity may be what kills off religion.

My devout Catholic mother went to her grave scared out of her mind. Part of it was because her condition was quite debilitating: her case of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy is similar to Parkinson’s disease. In general, it’s a bad way to go. Michael J. Fox isn’t happy about his diagnosis. Robin Williams made what seemed to him the logical choice and hung himself rather than go through a miserable decline. But my mother was also uncertain about whether she would make it into heaven. She alluded to many mistakes she had made in her life, as if any of us get through life without making mistakes. I think what really terrified her was not finding going to hell, but the idea of utter nothingness, which you have to assume happens to you after death if there is no afterlife. It terrified her probably because her Catholic faith had kept her thinking about it, at least until she couldn’t not think about it anymore.

And yet as I noted before, no one worries about their state of nothingness before they were conceived. So logically it’s kind of silly to worry about what you are after death, if anything. I do suspect though that with the right education a lot of us can learn to deal with death in a much more … what’s the word … healthier way. We can choose to be terrified of it, or not. But death cannot be escaped.

I think that’s where my head is right now. Whether my soul survives after death or not doesn’t particularly bother me. For me, what works is to be present in my own life every day, and to do things that I find interesting and meaningful every day. With death the lights may go out or not, but I do take some comfort that I am immortal in a way. Because of Albert Einstein, we know that space-time is real, and that time is an illusion. My mom is still alive somewhere in the space-time matrix. I just lack the ability to slide through space-time like a tape recorder to see her again. Some mediums though claim they can do this.

Given that space-time is a fact and that religion requires faith, knowing that space-time exists tells me that I am immortal in a way, as I am part of space-time which is effectively immortal. It is a sort of faith for the faithless. And I didn’t need Jesus Christ to find it. I needed to understand the implications of what Albert Einstein was telling us.

The View at 54

Today happens to be my birthday, my 54th birthday in fact. I tend to largely ignore my birthdays and this one in particular is not noteworthy. There were a couple of birthday cards on the breakfast table, and my friends on Facebook have been offering felicitations, since now they know these little secrets.

If you are behind me in time stream, you may wonder what your life will be like at 54. Your view at 54 will doubtless look different than mine, but I can probably set some realistic expectations.

At 54, my life feels very settled and mostly comfortable. With the current economy, I am fortunate to have a job because many men my age who lose their job are fortunate if their local Wal-Mart will hire them. For much of my life, I felt like a salmon swimming desperately upstream. At 54, you may be over the hill, but you (hopefully) are done with the arduous climbing. At this altitude, you can see a long way. This vision is something akin to wisdom, which, if you are learning lessons from life, comes naturally with age. At my advanced age, you should know what to do and what not to do, and are painfully aware of the consequences if you act against your better judgment. You realize you got a pretty good thing going and are more concerned with preserving what you have than boldly trying new things.

No doubt about it. I am settling down. Retirement is no longer an abstraction; it is something I am already grappling with. I am making choices that in some ways are as complex as those I endured to get here, but largely these choices are more fun to deal with. Knowing that I won’t be salaried forever, I am paying a lot more attention to figuring out how I will navigate the fixed income world. Right now this includes paying down the balance on our mortgage and slowly shifting investments away from stocks into safer securities like bonds. Since I am in my prime earning years, I am also saving more than I ever have. I am maxing out my 401-K. At the end of the month, whatever income is left over goes toward paying down the mortgage balance. $79,266.91 to go. I can theoretically retire next year, but will pick up another job when I do retire at least until the mortgage is fully paid off. With luck it will be a part time job, something I truly enjoy doing and something I can do for a lot less money.

It’s not all terrific at age 54. I miss the body I had in my 20s. Age has taken its toll. I have dealt with an enlarged aorta, an irregular heartbeat, a vasovagal syncope that broke my nose and put me in the hospital, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, then low blood pressure, tarsal tunnel syndrome and painful, persistent sciatica that increasingly feels incurable. Aside from these issues, I am in good health, a little overweight but not too much, with thinning hair slowly mixing with grey. My libido has sagged, which is entirely natural but which, oddly, is rarely discussed among men my age. I still feel reasonably sharp although with so many memories keeping it all sorted is increasingly a challenge. My brain purges a lot of detritus, like hundreds of emails that I scanned over the course of the day.

The years keep tumbling by, so much so in that they all sort of run together now. It’s getting to the point where I can no longer keep my decades straight. I have to think hard when someone asks where I was or what I was doing in a certain year. Listing my employment history would be a real challenge. Who supervised me thirty years ago? When did I start and leave that job? How much did I earn back then? Why should it matter?

Time moves much more quickly but oddly I feel much less anxious about it. Aging was much more traumatic going from 29 to 30 that from 49 to 50. Turning 54 is a piece of cake. Yes, I know I have more years behind me than ahead of me. Death bothers me a lot less than it used to. At age 29, death was big and scary principally because (in retrospect) aging was big and scary. Now death is more of a known commodity. I know sort of what to expect by seeing my mother go through it, and while dying is no fun with its mystery gone so is much of its terror. I am accepting aging so much better than I used to. If you are lucky, you make it to old age. None of us gets out of life alive. We are born to die. The pragmatist in me says just enjoy each day as it comes and don’t spend too much time fretting how it will end. End it must. I hope not to escape death, but to live as healthy and as meaningful a life as nature will let me, and to accept it gracefully when it won’t.

While I am far down life’s runway, there is much more runway ahead and it is some of the best runway: straight, level with no potholes or grooves in the pavement. Life may be comfortable at 54, but life still throws the occasional curve ball, some of which let you know there is so much life worth living ahead of you. Last year, my father remarried at age 83. By doing so he singlehandedly redefined my expectations of old age. Just this week I received another surprise. I may be 54, but I am not too old to have a new niece or nephew. My youngest brother’s wife is pregnant, with a baby expected in six months or so. With a little assist from medical technology (they are in their mid forties), my brother will also join the fatherhood club. I am sure like with everything else he does that he will excel in the role.

Maybe it’s good that those first 54 years are all blending together. Now I can anticipate what adventures may lay ahead when I turn 55.