I had a creative writing teacher in college. He was one of these intense, bearded, Birkenstock types who, doubtlessly parroting someone else, said there are only two seismic mysteries in life: sex and death.
At the time, as I was only 18, I was far more focused on the sex part than the death part. For me the sex part was more about actually having sex. Now, at age 50 sex is no longer a mystery. My bearded professor though did not mean sex as in sexual intercourse, but sex as in procreation. Sexual intercourse (at least until recently) is the event which causes human life to start. The flip side of life is of course, death. I think that was my professor’s point. Death was as equally mysterious as creation. Death was also an inescapable fact of being alive. It came with the territory.
My professor was likely 50-something at the time I sat in his class in 1975. Which means if he still alive he is probably eighty something now. More likely, he is pushing up the daisies. Now it just so happened that I turned 50 not too long ago. Given that sex is no longer quite the consuming mystery it once was (although relationships in general remain baffling and mysterious) it should not be too surprising that I spend a lot more time these days thinking about death.
Just because death is an unfathomable mystery does not mean that I, like most aging humans on the planet, isn’t trying to fathom it anyhow. This angst was doubtless at least partially responsible for my delving into metaphysics the way I did when I was in my forties. It may also explain society’s general fascination with TV shows like Ghost Hunters, not to mention TV psychics like John Edward.
When you are 50-something you tend to have had the experience of witnessing the dying process at least once. As frequent readers know, my mother passed away in 2005. Since she was living close to me at the time, I got the dubious privilege of witnessing the American style of death. In my Mom’s case, dying meant progressively worse congestive heart failure, falling a lot, long stays in ICUs, and finally a parking spot at a very pretty but still dispiriting nursing home. Over five months she was there, I had an intimate look watching the life forces slowly drain out of her. I have many memories of visiting her in the nursing home and finding her parked in the TV room in a wheelchair with a dozen other short timers, none of whom had the least bit of interest in watching TV. Most were asleep. It seemed like their major daily activity consisted of remembering to breathe regularly. My beloved mother eventually died directly of a kidney infection and indirectly of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy while attached to a noisy nonstop machine feeding oxygen through her nostrils and an uncomfortable catheter buried deep in her private parts.
So naturally, those of us who witnessed someone dying like this are hoping that when our time comes things will go better, with less angst and fuss and without having to surrender our dignity. I personally am hoping I am one of the fortunate few that die suddenly and peacefully in their sleep, perhaps in the middle of a dream. Failing that, I would prefer to be unexpectedly run over by a bus, providing I died very quickly. Naturally, I do not want to die at all, but if I must die, I do not want to do it before I have lived a long, fully engaged and quintessential American life.
In some ways, every day that I now wake up in good health I take as a blessing. The older I get though the more surreal it feels. I am waiting for some sure sign that I too am mortal. There are many indirect signs such as age spots and poorer vision. I have yet to have that serious, life threatening traumatic event that will cement my mortality in my forebrain. Something like a coronary bypass would do it. My goal, of course, is to get through life minus such an event. However, I am sure there will be other signs to remind me that my life is finite. Perhaps it will be arthritic joints. All I can really do is hope that with a combination of good genetics, diet and exercise that I can enjoy a fully engaged and relatively pain free life as long as possible. I know in time the bell will toll for me too.
For being 50-something is also a time when you notice that others in your age group are not as fortunate. I know a number of people my age, some former classmates and some friends and coworkers who have gone to their great premature reward. As the ranks of your peers begin to thin, however slowly, it is natural to wonder how much longer you have.
The optimist says that the glass is half-full. The pessimist says it is half-empty. My problem is that I know my glass is no longer even half-full, which may be why my inner pessimist is coming out more. The good news is that I cannot see where the bottom of the glass is exactly. Suspense is a natural byproduct of mystery, and some of us are better at dealing with suspense than others are. Those of us who like our lives planned might almost prefer to know precisely when we will die. Then we would at least know how to spend our remaining time wisely. Perhaps we would then spend more of our time enjoying life rather than engaging in all this necessary but tedious exercise. Because what is the point in living if you are so engaged in prolonging life that it becomes harder to enjoy?
The good part about this stage of my life is that life I feel life more acutely. For example, when I go somewhere like Yellowstone I wonder, will I ever come back here again before I am, well, dead? So you try to revel in that moment when you dip your feet into a wild mountain stream. At the same time, your brain (or at least mine) is also participating in the experience as a dispassionate spectator. I find that the less I frame an experience the better it becomes. Unfortunately, it is hard not to apply the mortal frame to life events when your cup of life is less than half-full.
Perhaps successful living at my time of life comes from suspending disbelief about your own mortality. Perhaps it comes from laughing in the face of death, even though death at age 50 is likely many decades away. Perhaps it comes from thinking less and feeling more. For me I find it helps to stay engaged in tasks. For us older Americans, idleness can be deadly.
The only problem with full engagement is that while you are arguably having a great time the years go by so quickly. I have reached that age where I have a devilish time putting time into its proper perspective. Some months back I wrote a review about the movie made of the hit Broadway musical The Producers. I said I first saw it (likely on TV) some 25 years ago. I had to do the math. 2007-25 would be 1982 or so. That sounds right. However, the first movie of The Producers came out in 1968, which was almost forty years ago. I was too young to see it in the theaters yet still I remember 1968 fairly well, since I was 11 at the time. It is almost as if 1968 happened yesterday, not forty years ago. Memory does this to you. At my age, I have to think hard about the sequence and time between past events. Just when did I graduate from college? How long ago was that? What was the world like in 1978? How can it be 2007 when I feel it is more like 1987?
The world is always changing but my brain does not appear to be changing. It is stuck at a certain mental age, say age 30. I got a sense of this in Denver recently. A group of us went to a Whole Foods store for lunch. We noshed on very tasty, overpriced but organically certified sandwiches. I was overwhelmed by the size of the place. The varieties of choices blew my little 1960s-framed mind. It made my head ache just trying to wrap my brain around the vast supply chain created to bring all this choice to me, all of it wholesome and fresh. The supply chain had evolved in the last forty years, but my brain was still back in the 1960s. Back then, you felt lucky to find a couple dozen kinds of cereal at the local grocer. The closest cereal to being a health food was Kellogg’s All Bran. Whole Foods, rather than feeling all-natural, felt extremely surreal. To a twenty something wandering the store though, it was completely ordinary.
I am beginning to suspect that by a certain age that because of the way the world actually is compared with your frame of it that death can be seen as a blessing. I suspect that by the time old age arrives, you feel like you are living on an alien planet. I felt that way with my poor suffering mother. She could never quite grasp the computer. Superficially, it looked a bit like a typewriter, and she knew how to type, but certain things would not work like with a typewriter and mentally she could not get past them. She could not adopt. She was incapable of not hitting the enter key when she reached the end of a line. She could not comprehend the idea of copying and pasting. She was the sort who wanted to fix mistakes by using whiteout on the monitor.
I suspect as geeky as I am that I will think like this at some point. Maybe I am halfway there already. Like all of us, I am trapped in this portal called life whose beginnings are as mysterious as its ending is certain. The mystery of life is everywhere and pervasive, but as I age the apprehension is often there too. Therefore, like most 50-something Americans I keep engaging, generally happy with where I am in life, but somewhat apprehensive nonetheless. I keep wondering when my inner Energizer battery will slow down. While apprehensive I am still appreciative and more than a little wowed that I still have it all together. A hundred years ago I would likely be dead by now.
For me modern life is slowly becoming more and more surreal. Perhaps when it becomes totally surreal, life ends and, like Neo in The Matrix, you wake in a stupor to find that your entire existence was nothing but a complex simulation.
That is when I want to get hit by the bus.