Note: This may seem a bit too dark for a posting on the eve of the New Year, but it’s intended to be just the opposite – an expression of gratitude for the privilege of being present to welcome in another circle around the sun. I wish you all a year of good health, love, productivity and a major shift in our political landscape.
There’s a famous New Yorker cartoon that shows someone peering over the shoulder of a man who is reading the obituary page of a newspaper. The headlines on several of the obituaries read “Two years older than me,” “Two years younger than me,” and “Exactly my age.” I turned 80 last summer, and this cartoon captures all too accurately, the background dirge playing in my head endlessly.
That may sound like I’m in a constant state of gloom as I go about my daily business, but that is far from the case. I consider myself a happy man, full of gratitude for the good years I’ve had, the meaningful work I’ve been fortunate to do, the love of family and friends that has surrounded me, the unprecedented good health I’ve been granted: a Cal Ripkin-like streak of not missing a day of school or work for reasons of illness from the fourth grade through retirement; haven’t spent a single night in a hospital bed since I had my tonsils out at age four or five. I wake up each morning eager to read the day’s news, regardless of how dark it may be, excited about what my daily schedule might hold – meetings, visits with friends, former colleagues and students, theater evenings, the latest Netflix film. It’s all good, so long as my body doesn’t betray me.
But it will eventually. The other shoe will drop, as that dirge reminds me, that earworm of eventual decline and death that is the background music playing behind all the mundane activities of my day. A man of my age would be a fool not to attend to that music. I’m living on borrowed time, well beyond what has been granted so many people at least as worthy as I. My father-in- law, no slouch in the exercise of denial, claimed when he was beyond 80 that he had never thought for a minute about death, while my own father, at the other end of the spectrum, thought about it constantly and lived in terror of his inevitable demise right up to its final arrival at age 86. I’m determined to avoid both these models, by confronting openly the knowledge that my death is an inevitability, one that I will try to face free of cowardice against a backdrop of gratitude for a kind of life that’s been granted to very few on a planet awash in suffering. Of course, while all this remains an abstraction, it’s hard to know how one will actually react when the edict is finally read, so my determination about how I want to face death is only aspirational at this point.
After 56 years of marriage, there are many unspoken understandings that my wife and I share. I know that she is listening to the same dirge that is my background music. We speak about it only rarely, but we glance at each other knowingly when we encounter something that triggers thoughts about the endgame. The husband of a good friend died recently. They had been together even longer than we have, stretching all the way back to their high school years. It’s been hard on her, a woman of great intellectual prowess and self-confidence. For a long time, she appeared confused, diminished in some way and watching her reawaken we share the thought that is always lurking, ready to pounce. “Please, let me be the one to go first, but if I’m not, please give me the strength to carry on with dignity and without becoming a burden, particularly to my children.”
And the children. How do we help them prepare for our inevitable decline and departure? Right now we’re still on that plateau where, despite our growing physical limitations, we’re able to do most things, physical and mental, with relatively few constraints. We can walk. We can exchange banter about books, sports, politics, TV, movies, friends and family. Sure, we’re preoccupied with avoiding falls and embarrassed for others to see us struggling up stairs, but those are minor impediments in the grand scheme of things. My wife published a new novel last year, and I still spend a fair amount of time visiting classrooms and meeting with teachers and other professional colleagues. In the midst of these relatively good times, how do we remind our children that the shot clock is winding down till the inevitable red light flashes? Of course, they’re listening to their own inner music about loss, but conversation on the subject is taboo. The closest we’ve gotten to it is the letter we sent our daughters outlining our various assets, the contact information for our lawyer and accountant, the location of our will, our storage locker and our deed – all done in a light tone, as if to distract from the seriousness of the business at hand.
Then there’s Dalia, our one and only beloved granddaughter. She arrived so late that I had despaired of ever being a grandparent, which makes her all the more precious to us. She is nine now, the point at which memories stick a little better than they have up to now, but still we wonder what she would retain of us if we died now – a few scraps of her visits to us in Chicago and New Hampshire, a fading physical memory of us which will need to be propped up with frequent references to the photographs her parents have taken. We measure our remaining years in terms of the stages of Dalia’s life. Will we make it to her Bat Mitzvah – a little less than four years from now? Will it be just one of us, or miraculously, both of us? We live with the recognition that we’re not likely to see her deep in adolescence, at college, at her wedding, among the many things we won’t be around for when the tape runs out. How do we use the time that remains to help her very capable parents instill in her the values of empathy and justice we hope she’ll embody? It would be so much easier to imagine this work in a time when families stayed close, often in the same household, while we are many hundreds of miles away, able only to drop in on her life occasionally.
Because my wife and I still spend a good deal of our time in the company of people considerably younger than us, we’re so aware of how unimaginable it would be for most of them to conceive of these drumbeats of time ending that dominate our thinking so much of the time. And that’s as it should be. They ought to be moving to the dance music, the hip hop rhythms that propel their lives forward, until the distant time when the music changes. Of course we envy them at times, wishing for another shot, more time. One of our daughters was fascinated in her early adolescence by Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, one of the greatest books ever written for young readers – and old. It’s about a young girl who is offered the opportunity to live forever if she drinks from the waters of a magical spring. In the end, she rejects the offer, recognizing that there is wisdom in accepting the constantly turning wheel, the cycle of life that must contain the downward arc, if the upward swing is to be as exhilarating as it deserves to be. So we’re trying our best to ride that arc to the bottom with as much gratitude and dignity as we can muster. Happy New Year!