You’d think I’d have gotten it by now, but no, I’m still working on it. There was a flash of inspiration once, at around age 42, when I got it in a way I had never gotten it before. In that moment, I first truly understood, deep down in my gut, that I wasn’t going to be alive forever. I can remember the moment still, my eyes landing on the giant limbs of the oak tree outside as the epiphany entered my consciousness. I sat there at the window seat, transfixed in the new understanding. I followed the idea further… This moment could plausibly be the halfway point; it was entirely possible that from now on, I was on the downward slope. I was now living the second half of my life – the part closer to death than to birth. And that was if things all went according to plan. Hell, things could even change tomorrow, there was no way of knowing. On the outside, things seems safe, measured, somewhat predictable. But from the inside, it just wasn’t so. This life thing was a veritable crap shoot.
Every one of us knows we’re going to go one day, but even so, the truth of it doesn’t always settle in. It’s too much, too real, too strange and other-worldly to contemplate one’s own death. It’s much easier to make a quick run to the mall, to keep the radio on the whole time, to occupy the space in between with to-do lists and tangential thinking. It’s all too easy to do anything but consider what your own end might feel like. How the whole thing will go down. There’s still so much unknown – where will you be living then? Will you be alone, will your kids be nearby? Will you have a partner with you? Will you be alone? Will you be in pain? Scared? For me, I’ve considered all of these questions more than a few times. Personally, I don’t think we talk enough about death in this culture. I might be wrong about this, maybe it’s just my own experience. But I have a feeling it aint. But then again, why should we concern ourselves with death? It only happens to us once, and honestly, it’s more trouble for those we’re leaving behind than it is for us. Plus it is, no matter how natural, still a little creepy. Here one minute, gone the next. So I can understand how it’s an easy topic to neglect.
As I find myself missing my father, now gone just less than a year, I realize that his peers are rapidly leaving us as well. So many contemporaries of my father’s have already gone, many are so very aged that it can’t be long until they’re gone, too. Cultural icons of his age are going as well. So many actors, artists and musicians who helped to create the world as I know it have died, and many time I’ve found myself making impulsive, late-night searches to see who’s still here with us, and who’s not. Yet even in the face of all these departures, somehow, until my own father died, it didn’t quite feel real. Still, it felt far-off and abstract. But these days it’s begun to feel very real to me, and I find myself needing to somehow figure it all out. I have to organize it all in some way that helps me get a handle on all the shit that’s coming up.
What makes someone become truly old? Just what the hell does old look like? Where is that elusive corner around which things all suddenly change? I’ve found myself re-defining ‘old’ several times in the past decade… And now that my own mother will turn 80 this coming January, I’m having to expand things yet again, because, as you can understand, I have a hard time thinking of my mother as old. My dad didn’t really get ‘old-old’ til very close to the end. Up until a week or so before his death, he possessed his sense of self, his sense of humor and an ear that could correct me from the other room if I played a wrong note. And then, finally, in those last, agitated days spent in a hospice bed in his home, it was there that he began to wither into the character I could finally identify as a very old man. Glad it was a quick process, because seeing him so transformed was hard for me. It is a beautiful, fortunate and perfect thing that one should sign off as an ancient human, but no matter, for those left behind it’s a time heavy with poignancy and heartbreak. Seeing Daddy so thin, so vulnerable, so small, so goddam old…
These days my son is changing. He’s suppose to, after all, he’s in sixth grade, on his way to twelve years old. All is as it should be. For the most part I’m thrilled about it, I’m intrigued, impressed, amazed. But I can tell you that it gives me a sense of relief – as if a respite from aging has been temporarily granted to my son – when he climbs into bed with me on the weekends, just to be close and talk. This is still our time to be together, a time when the world falls away, and it is still just the two of us. But as I catch glimpses of his now hairier legs, ever-shortening pajama pants and somehow older-looking face, I know that this too can’t last forever. His voice is still high, but his attitude doesn’t often match his voice. During the week there’s plenty of closed bedroom door time and new-found modesty when dressing. All things I respect and do not make light of. And I take them as indicators of what’s ahead. Signs of the autonomy to come. Signs of his becoming a young adult. I even see these new behaviors – and do not think me dramatic so much as pragmatic – as signs of his moving away. One day my son will leave, and I will be alone. Somehow, I gotta get my head and heart prepared.
Mom and I have had our talks about the estate, and how best to handle things (in light of an un-well brother whom we both want the best for, but who cannot hope to make sound choices on his own behalf) and in those conversations I’ve noticed how we don’t ever bring up the subject of her death, which of course, is most likely the next one to occur. That may sound morbid and abrupt, but it’s what we just spent a few hours and more than a few hundred dollars at the attorney’s office sorting out. Why not talk about it? Recently I tried to open up the topic by asking if it felt strange to realize she was getting to be 80 very soon. I’d hoped it might be a stepping-off point for the more pointed conversation about death. I wondered to myself, is she scared? but I couldn’t ask her. It’s just not something I’m comfortable with. Wish I were. So instead, I opened up the same conversation about our friend, 88-year-old Martha (who years ago suffered a stroke and these days has very little mobility or strength). I posited that Martha’s afraid of dying because she thinks there’s nothing after this life. We aren’t a family that’s ever spoken of religion (except for my mother’s mocking of it) or talked about anything remotely existential, so even this is uncomfortable territory. I wanted her to be clear about my feelings on the subject, so I told her “Me, I know we go onto a new experience after this. But if you don’t, I can see how it could be really scary”. My mother stared ahead out of the window and said that she too thought that there must be something more. But that’s as far as it went. At least I know how she feels. Sort of.
The topic doesn’t have to go further between us for the time being. I know that I’ll be there for her when she’s ready to go, and in my heart, that’s all that really matters. Still, it seems like a long way off. After all, at the very least she needs to see her grandson graduate from high school. And hard as it is for me to understand, that destination is the same distance from this moment as was his first day of Kindergarten. Halfway there. Strange.
I’m halfway there too. While I can’t say that I have any regrets, I am getting a little worried about how to make the most meaningful use of this second half. Once my job as parent is done, what then? What will propel me? What will have me wanting to get out of bed in the morning? And how will I deal with these physical changes? I never thought it would be me, but now it is. My shoulder hurts for no apparent reason, my arthritis continues to worsen and the friggin skin on my face and neck shows signs of a jowly future for me. Somehow, I need to accept this with a bit more class than I am at the moment. I need to buck up, suck up and keep on going. It’s just that I feel so wimpy, so unequipped to do this growing older thing. Somehow, God and I must have gotten our wires crossed. See, this stuff was supposed to be a lot easier than it’s turning out to be, plus I’m still not even sure it was supposed to happen to me at all. Sigh.
Last night I watched an Italian movie called “The First Beautiful Thing”. In the film we see the characters jump back and forth in time by several decades. It was fascinating. Plus it helped me to better get the whole aging thing, to better process what it is to see things enter into a person’s life, then fall away… It’s still very much a struggle for me, wrapping my brain around the changes that happen as we grow older. I see images of old friends on Facebook and have to check their names to make sure I know them. I double-check the name, compare it to the image in my head, and I look again, searching for what I know to be familiar about them. That certain quality is still there, but somehow, it’s not. They’re themselves, and yet they’re not. They look older, but how can that be? I thought that ‘old’ came so much later… But then again, maybe later is finally here.