After a hiatus of some twenty years, it seems that death has come to visit more and more of my friends and acquaintances. And I don’t much like it.
I’m starting now in my late 50’s to understand what my Grandmother warned me of on her 100th birthday. “Promise me,” she said, “that you won’t live this long!” Hers was an earnest plea delivered with passion and a certain degree of alarm or fear or some other strong emotion that was a complete surprise to me at the time. Grandma outlived her husband, all of her siblings and two of her children. I don’t know how many of her friends she outlasted, but there were probably dozens. She had a lot of experience to back up her admonition.
Grandma was also remarkably healthy. She was born in 1881 and married in 1900. Over the next sixteen years she bore six children who lived – and who knows how many that didn’t come to term or were stillborn. Her first encounter with a hospital was in her early 80’s when she had her gall bladder removed. Her next was at the age of 92 when she had a breast removed because there was a lump in it. When her doctor asked her if she was sure she wanted to have it removed she quipped, “Sure! What am I going to use it for?”
Grandma walked every day – weather permitting and excepting Sundays – down “to the avenue” as she called it. She lived in town and there were paved sidewalks the entire route and not too many busy streets to cross. It was a mile there and a mile back. She enjoyed walking. It was a real blow to her when she got up one morning during her 96th year and her thigh broke. She was in hospital for months with surgery to put in plates and screws and the ensuing physical therapy. When she got home she never went upstairs again – we put an old crank hospital bed in the corner of the dining room for her and a commode in the “back room” behind the kitchen. She was comfortable and seemingly content.
She had a nice comfortable chair she would sit in next to the big window in the dining room and she’d read big print books and a big print Bible that her oldest son bought for her. She had started to develop cataracts in her late 70’s but eschewed the corrective surgery because she didn’t expect to live long enough to appreciate the results.
I would drive down to Endicott to visit with her at least once a week. We’d sit and chat and I’d ask how she was doing and get her to tell me stories of her life – the monumental changes that had occurred between her birth in 1881 and the late 1970’s. She told me that she had some regrets – but that as you live life you have to make choices, and having made the choices you have to live with the consequences. She wouldn’t say what her wrong choices might have been.
And one day she told me that she was bored – bored nearly to tears just sitting around waiting to die. She said it so simply and easily and as a matter of fact that I wasn’t at all shocked or surprised. It was so simple – you live a long time and then you die. She was fine with that and impressed upon me that death is nothing to be frightened of – it’s just another part of life.
So here I am in my late 50s now, pushing 60, not in the very best of health, and far more mellow than I have been previously. I hope too that I’m a kinder person than I used to be, a little more understanding, perhaps, and maybe even a little more forgiving and tolerant that I had imagined I was capable of being. But these deaths these last few years – and Michael’s last week – have pressed the issue and reminded me of my own mortality.
I find it a little disturbing – because I’ve always felt very young. If not physically, then young in spirit or in heart or however it might be said.
I was exasperated after my heart attack when I found I had lost vigor, a large measure of my energy and stamina. It still irritates me that I can’t go up a flight of stairs, or walk the dog at her pace without labored breathing and a pounding heart. It irritates me that my right knee hurts when I go slowly up some stairs – I’m fine when I can go relatively quickly, but slow just kills me. And slow, of course, is how one has to come up out of the subway in New York. I don’t like that I’m fat and find it extremely difficult to lose weight. I don’t like that my beard and hair are gone white. I don’t like that I have to take seven pills a day to keep my heart going.
And lately I’ve wondered “What’s next? Will I have another heart attack or will I develop some form of cancer? Will my asthma get worse, or my bowels strangle themselves? A blood clot is not out of the question. Will I, perhaps, have a stroke when I’m trying to put on my socks? Or faint and fall onto the subway tracks >>Squish<<?”
It’s all very maudlin, I know, and I resent that it’s maudlin and that my thoughts are turned in this direction because my friends have started to shuffle off this mortal coil.
But I’m living my life! I get out and see friends and go play cards, and I’ve started going to Meetups about religion and atheism and morality and technology and transhumanism and other such things. I stay positive for the most part, and I laugh – and make others laugh, and I’m using my mind more than I have in the last 20 years or so and that’s a good thing. And I’ll do these things and more for as long as I can.
But it also seems a pretty sure bet that I’ll keep my promise to Grandma.