Shortly after I awoke yesterday, I witnessed a glorious moment. From our east windows, I could see the sun just bursting over the horizon, throwing a dazzling yellow/orange glow on the walls of our bedroom. At the same moment, from an adjoining room I could see from a west window the full moon heading toward the opposite horizon. This juxtaposition is hardly as rare as a solar eclipse, but I felt grateful to be alive to experience it.
The night before, my wife and I were sitting in a Chicago theater watching a play about characters in a small Wisconsin town so deftly etched that it made me forget for long chunks of the time how uncomfortable it was to be wearing a mask for well into a second hour. I was in the thrall of the power of well-crafted art.
I could go on listing precious moments like these, each of which grows my desire to live long enough to experience more like them. A visiting doctor sent by my insurance company gave me a thorough physical exam a few weeks ago, presumably to check on what kinds of liabilities the company might incur from my 83- year- old body. There were no red flags, so barring a piano falling on me from a great height, the prospects are good that I’ll be around for a while longer.
Yet, no sane person my age can avoid being plagued by thoughts of death, which is sure to come, maybe tomorrow, or in year? Five? Ten? With almost sixty years of laughing and brooding together, I can tell when Rosellen is sharing those dark thoughts of what awaits. I worry that if I go first, she doesn’t know how I deal in my sloppy and idiosyncratic, yet effective, way with our finances. She doesn’t know how to use the remote for our TV and DVR. She doesn’t like to drive at night. If she’s first to go, I’m liable to withdraw from social contact. I won’t have anyone with whom to share my inconsequential thoughts about the news and whatever our TV fare of the moment is. And who will correct the errors in my use of commas, which are legion.
Of course, I’m making light of the situation by focusing on these trivial details to avoid the much deeper loss of lives so inextricably intertwined that ripping one away threatens the survival of the other. In fact the play that I mentioned earlier, Swing State by Rebecca Gilman, is about a widow who finds living without her husband so impossible that she hatches an elaborate plan to take her own life.
Although Rosellen and I don’t share our thoughts about death too often, we know that we can. It’s not a taboo subject, though it runs a distant second to our rantings about the outrageous and unqualified candidates running for Senate on the Republican ticket. What concerns me is our failure to talk honestly and openly about our mortality with our daughters and our granddaughter. Sure, we talk about our wills and joke about our spending down their inheritance when we indulge in some capital expense. But this all happens against a backdrop of a still active, relatively healthy life which contains within it the delusion that it will ever be the same. Last night we had dinner with a friend whose parents are 7 or 8 years older than us. Their lives are a parade of trips to the emergency room, permanent assignment to wheelchairs, bathroom challenges. If we’re lucky enough to live as long as they, that is the fate that awaits us, followed by a dark predictable ending.
We all know this. There’s no escape from it, yet the power of denial is so strong that it dams up this channel of communication. On the rare occasions when the topic has surfaced, it has brought tears, behind which, I fear, lies some superstitious belief that speaking of it will hasten its arrival. I remember with my own parents that my desire to record their memories of “The Old Country” were thwarted by the fear that requesting permission to do so would be an acknowledgement of their imminent death.
The challenge with Dalia is of a different magnitude. She is still blessedly innocent of the experience of the death of anyone close to her. All her grandparents are still alive, and her great grandparents were long gone before she arrived. The disruption within that safe circle, would (will) be traumatic, but could it be less so if we were able to talk openly about the reality of what’s to come? How to introduce the subject without triggering fears that will be the backdrop of all our future interactions with her?
When I post this, my daughters will be among its readers. Maybe this is a safe way to open the conversation, easier than an unprotected face to face exchange. What I want more than anything is to find a way to talk about death and its aftermath in ways that are not morbid, that restores the topic to its place as a natural part of the life cycle.
Don’t be deceived by the measured tone of my remarks. I’m terrified of dying, of the nothingness that follows. It’s as if an enormous door shuts in front of you, cutting you off from what continues to unfold on the other side. I’m hungry for more experiences like the ones I described earlier. I want to know the stories of what happens to all my loved ones and friends as their lives continue. So, I’m going to continue to exercise every morning, take my medications and eat healthy to maintain the illusion that I have some control over my fate. That’s all any of us can do.