For a few months now I’ve been toying with the idea of drawing up a timeline for my life. To make a visual representation of it, sort of like a roadmap from the known into the unknown. I’ve been, as regular readers may know, in sort of a sentimental funk recently, and having made a near-complete inventory of my life and its landmarks, as well as having become more familiar with those of my parents and their parents too, it seemed both a sensible and tangible way by which I might begin to better comprehend and really understand what my own finite life might look like. It might seem a strange project; trying to posit the year in which I might possibly die, maybe it might even sound a bit morbid to some. But I think not. I need to get a handle on this mortality thing by whatever means necessary.
I’m not a person who can simply tally things up in my mind with ease. I’m just not great with numbers. In math class, word problems had me wanting to chuck the book over my shoulder like the characters in a Peanuts cartoon, and if anyone ever asks me to count change back, it takes me a minute to wipe the glassy look from my eyes before I can get down to business. I’m hard-pressed to tell you how old I’ll be in thus-and-such year, because I was born in a ‘3’ year, which prevents sums from rounding to a tidy 5 or 10. (Yes, I could simply take away three or add seven – but this is precisely the kind of stuff that rattles me.) I do know that my son is 40 years younger than me (minus 9 days, but who’s counting?) so thankfully I always know where he and I stand with respect to each others ages. But exactly how old will I be in 2045? That just sounds so Jetsons-ahead that I cannot begin to comprehend it. It makes me think of my dear old father. How in hell must he have felt to hear that it was the year 2013? Dementia aside, anything past the year 2000 – even for middle-agers like me – always felt like some far-off futuristic land into which we would never enter in our lifetimes. Even though we knew that in all likelihood, we would. I don’t know about you, but ten mintues to midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1999, I still didn’t really believe where we were. (I had the honor of counting down the new year to a very high-brow and refined crowd at a tony downtown Chicago restaurant; the smattering of muffled applause at the event was a bit underwhelming after all the hoopla working up to it. Woo hoo.) So imagine a cat who was born in the 1920s finding his daughter informing him ‘Dad, it’s the year two–thousand thirteen‘…. How crazy must that have sounded? How does a fellow who’s losing his memory deal with that unlikely-sounding date? Myself, I don’t want to be caught off guard. And so this morning I made myself a map.
At this point in our futuristic present, I suppose there’s probably an app for making such a timeline. (If there isn’t, you’re welcome.) And given the enormity of this world, I must remind myself that the chances are pretty great that something like it has been done before. (I remember thinking at dad’s ‘living wake’ how novel that was – but I didn’t kid myself to think we had been the only ones to do so. Anecdotal stories poured in shortly thereafter confirming my suspicion.) I made my timeline by parceling off a hundred and fifty years in five year increments, noting the births of my parents, my birth and my son’s, and then the death of my father. I made a bracket that spanned the eighty-five year lifetime of my dad, and then I took that eighty-five year measurement and used it as a measure for a possible projected lifetime for mom, Elihu and me. It was interesting to see actual dates to represent our potential years of death. Even though my mom is now seventy-nine and likeliest the first of we three to go (I still don’t actually believe my mother will ever die), I’ve still never found myself literally considering how much time she has left. And me, of course, why I’ve always just envisioned my own life trailing vaguely off into the murky and unseen future without ever really coming to any definite conclusion… (Because I too, in my heart of hearts, will never actually die, you see.) Ah, but even though I do in fact understand that I shall be dying one day, I’ve never stopped for even so much as a minute to envision how, where… or when. You can see the insight this exercise provides, right? Now I have number. A target to be mindful of. A bit arbitrary, sure, but much clearer than no idea at all. And my son? Well who in hell ever stops to ponder the time in which one’s own child might leave this earthly plane? Me, apparently. So, you may wonder, what is the data? What do those numbers show?
Well, if we were all to live as long as grandpa, then mom will die in 2021, I’ll die in 2048, and Elihu in 2088. Man, that last year just sounds off-the-hook wrong. Two-thousand eighty–eight? That sure seems far-off. But aside from the shock of seeing that distant-seeming year in black and white, I am just a bit stunned at what I now see before me. Damn. Ok, so this may not seem groundbreaking or revelatory; I realize that I can easily just add 85 to anyone’s birthyear and arrive at the posited year of death, but to see it all in a linear form in front of you on paper is something completely different. At least for me. One thing that caught me a bit by surprise was how small the area was in which my father’s and my son’s lives intersected. Dad had this long, full life, but only a tiny portion was shared with his grandson (and to make it ever a bit more heartbreaking, Elihu hardly knew his grandfather as the elegant and eloquent man he once was). And if I pushed the timeline out a bit to encompass the births and deaths of my grandparents, what struck me then was how far apart our generations were. My grandmother had my dad when she was 45, I had Elihu at 40, so already you can see how wide the space becomes. Also, my son was born exactly one hundred years after my maternal grandmother; on both sides we’ve given wide berth between generations. To give it an even more surreal touch, my great-grandfather (dad’s maternal grandpa) served in the Civil War! He was young, 16 or so, when he as a drummer boy lead the troops into battle. (Obviously he came back safe and sound, because here I am.)
But for how much longer am I here? And once again the largest question of all comes to the surface: just what the hell is it that I am supposed to be doing while I’m here?
I’ve suffered with panic attacks since the age of fourteen, and can say that a contributing factor to panic is the sense of this world being too goddam and overwhelmingly big, and me, the experiencer of panic attacks, so goddam small and powerless within that big world. In large part panic attacks are about control – or more accurately, lack of control. It comes from being acutely aware of just how immense the world is, how limitless the options, how daunting the task of finding that one reason you’re here, that one thing that only you can do… My most difficult challenge in life has always been to truly feel that I’m ok at what I’m doing. That I’m not just existing for naught. Spinning my existential wheels, so to speak. I don’t have the tenacity or desire to be truly outstanding at anything, but at least I’d like to be comfortable just being here. I might not set any records, but I still want very much to feel like my tiny life added to the value of the planet. Having never paid much attention to the constant escape of time, I’m all of a sudden feeling a mild level of panic rising inside… is it too late? And if it is too late – for what exactly is it too late?
In my job at the Waldorf School I am blessed to have personal relationships with a great number of children, from first graders to twelfth graders. Having been there for two years now, I can begin to see how it is that children grow from teeny to teenager. I can now look at an eight year old and begin to guess what she’ll look and act like as an eighteen year old. Sitting at the piano looking out at the second grade class, I realize they’ll be freshmen in high school when my own son is a senior. These tiny babies will be lumbering, smelly, adult-sized humans by then. Truly unfathomable for me only a few years ago, before I came to know what it was to have a child of my own grow older, but now, today, I can begin to get it.To truly see it in my mind’s eye. Seeing the process up close like this fuels the fire and once again the nagging question burns; am I too late? What have I not done yet that I need to do before it’s no longer possible? Until only a few years ago, I had all the time in the world and nothing seemed impossible…but not so now. Now I know about things like arthritis and bad knees. The concerns of old people are becoming concerns of my very own, and it’s got me feeling the heat. Now I can finally hear the ticking of the clock…
At the time of this writing I have 2,050 subscribers. I look at the number and no longer think of two thousand and fifty people, instead I think: how old will I be in the year 2050? Now I know. I will be 87. If I make it. And if I do make it, what will I be doing with my life? Will I be doing good work on the planet, or merely existing? To have an end date in mind really does wake one up. It renews a sense of urgency where there was once nothing but exhaustion, frustration and run-of-the-mill complacency. I may still be a bit crabby about being here, I might still feel I have more on my emotional plate than I’m capable of successfully dealing with, but at least now I have a better idea for how much longer I might even have the opportunity to be such things at all. Maybe, with an ending in sight, I’ll find the resolve to get down to business. To write more thank-you cards, smile more at strangers, tell more people how much I appreciate them… And maybe I can find the courage to give myself a list of the things that I’d always thought I might do ‘one day’…. The days ahead may well be fewer than the ones behind. If that isn’t enough motivation to square away the proverbial bucket list, I don’t know what is.
To make life seem a bit easier and a little less daunting, I sometimes like to think of it as a game. You gotta play by a handful of rules, you get to use your natural talents when making your moves, and if you apply a little clever strategy you can accomplish things beyond the ordinary, expected outcomes. I’ve got a modest bag of skills to play with, but more importantly, I have an eye on the clock and I’m ready to play the second half. Ready, I suppose, as I’ll ever be. Yeah, guess it feels like game time now…
Post Script: It’s amazing how quickly my math skills have improved since I linked them to this little age experiment! With each handful of new subscribers I find myself easily computing my corresponding new ‘end age’. It’s motivating, for sure. I’m fairly sure I won’t make it this far (Elihu and I have agreed that 90 feels about right for me – but tell that to me when I’m 90) and at current readership, I’m now 96. Yikes. Goodbye dear world! I enjoyed the ride and learned a lot… hope to see you all again some new day….