Reflections on Aging and Death

Last week, Franny and I were talking about our finances.  There has been such a drop in the interest paid on savings that I wondered whether it would be better to spend it down or try to live off of the interest.  When Franny questioned my thinking, I skipped all reasonable responses and blurted out “Look, I can only count on about five or six years.  I’d like to live them well.”  I find myself saying such things more often these days.

They speak less to actuarial tables than to mindset and mythology.  The mindset has to do with my experience of aging.  The mythology represents the magical ideas that shape my experience.  In this case, they are ideas about how long I will live and how long I will be healthy.  My father died at fifty; many of my friends still tease me about how I prepared them for my early death. There’s more: I shaped my image of an appropriate family size based on this supposition and not wanting to “orphan” my younger children, as happened to my father with his parents.   Now that I’ve exceeded what I thought was my allotted time, I’d like to make conscious my current myths.

There have always been people who struggle to diminish the power of death.  The great English poet, John Donne, wrote that “death shall have no dominion.”  And Dylan Thomas taught us to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”  I love their passion and courage but their message leaves me cold—no pun intended.  Others try to wrestle with their fears by trying to transform them into wisdom.  With wisdom, they believe, death’s dominion can be very much diminished.  But, for most of us, these quests for wisdom don’t succeed in quelling the fear very much at all.

For me, infirmity and death have increasing dominion.  The frequency of how much they enter my mind and conversation, often stealthily, is startling, especially when, for most of every day, I feel good, lively, even optimistic.  There’s nothing particularly morbid about this, at least I don’t think so.  It’s just a fact.  And I’m not alone with it. My friends tell me that they are pulled in the same direction.

Death comes to my door when I try to plan for the future, whether it’s a question of money, wills, diet, exercise, work, or vacations.  There’s always the question of how long I will have to enjoy things, how long I will be able to get around well, how much my wife and I want to spend on ourselves and how much leave to our children or to our causes. Premonitions of death slide into mind when my stomach is upset for “too long,” when my knees ache too much, when I’m breathing so much harder than I used to after an uphill climb.

There are times that I think about death because I think I should.  Isn’t that what people my age – 74 — do?  Irving Howe puts it this way:  “I think of death because it seems proper at this point in life, rather like beaming at the children of younger friends.”  It’s also proper in formal ways: making out a will; making arrangements with your children, because it can sneak up on you any time.

We plan and prepare for death as though we really could. The process can be almost ceremonial.  We try to imagine dying.  We might begin to write our own obituaries.  We wonder how people will think of us when we are gone, maybe even make adjustments in how we live so that we are remembered well.  We try to be kinder, more generous, even more interesting.  We do this until it seems too hard and we tell ourselves, with some irritation, that “I am who I am,” as though someone is trying to take that away.

Grandchildren are a constant stimulus.  Will I live to see Molly, our seventeen year old granddaughter, married, with children, if she so chooses?  Maybe.  The other day, my six year old grandson, Eli, proclaimed that I would surely be around to meet his children.  “Well, Eli, maybe not.” He looked disappointed, pondered this possibility for a while, then acknowledged what I’d said.  “You would be very old, Grandpa.”  Franny and I wonder if we will live to see our younger grandchildren graduate high school, find professions, get married, have children.  Probably not, at least for me.  (I’m a bit easier about hitting a few of these markers with my second grandchild Jake, already a high schooler.) These “imaginary” events become markers for us, and these subjects come up all the time, as if thinking about the future this way might give us more control over what will happen.

Acute Illness brings death to the door.  I had a major surgery for a hiatal hernia in December.  It’s not clear that it has been a complete success and I might need reparative surgery in the upcoming months.  That gives me lots of time to contemplate “what if’s”.  This is catastrophic thinking brought on by real danger but there are many other aches and pains that kick me onto that increasingly well-worn path of concern.

When friends die, as they are doing with greater frequency these days, death comes powerfully to mind.  The worst, though, is seeing friends who have become terribly frail.  It is beyond poignant.  I identify with them and reject the identification at almost the same time.  It is their ongoing presence that makes it hard to maintain my own defenses and makes me wonder if death isn’t more desirable.  That is, until I start to think of death’s meaning: not being, not existing.  That is terrifying, and I want more of life; in  Howe’s words, a “greediness for time” takes over.

Some people play out their “greediness” by creating “bucket lists,” experiences that they must have before the end.  Some have relationships to mend, places to go, books to write, sunsets to view without rush.  I could extend this list a great deal, as could each of you.

The main point is, though, that as I age, death becomes more and more a part of my life, not something peripheral or grafted on.  It is part of my interior life, my social life, and my physical life.

Over time, though, I have learned to live a little more comfortably with death.  Thinking and talking about it, makes it less terrifying.  It brings it down to size, at least a bit.  Living for long stretches of days and weeks with full energy and concentration, even zest, also brings it down to size.  I won’t or don’t let it dominate me.  So far, I can neither turn away nor stare directly at it.  A sideways glance seems right for now.

That I have already lived the great majority of my life is a fact.  That I am declining and, soon enough, will find myself infirm—that’s for damn sure.  And I’m pretty sure that I will die one of these days.  If the obituaries that I now find myself reading more closely are to be trusted, that day will come sooner than I would like.

How I respond to these ‘facts’ though, that’s partly up to me.  It’s a state of mind that can shade many ways: gloomy, sunny, ironically, matter-of-factly.  I believe that I have some control over this.  Victor Frankl, writing of his time in a German concentration camp, put it this way.  “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  I can at least try.

 

 

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16 thoughts on “Reflections on Aging and Death”

  1. Barry, it’s a relief to find that my own frequent thoughts about death aren’t totally weird (!). I’ve always been mindful of my own mortality. On the way to hospital with my mother for a surgical procedure, age 11, we passed a cemetery, and I shared with my mother the thought that it was quite handy to have a cemetery so close to the hospital – something about making it easier to handle all the dead bodies. Twenty years later, on the birth of my first child, I remember thinking that now I could die happy; but then, a second thought: it would be so good if I could live long enough for my son to remember me; and so on, throughout life. Over the past 8 years, I’ve gotten quite used to being a ‘cancer survivor’. These years have been especially blessed for me, and not least because I’ve had such good reason to regard them as an unexpected gift. I’m really grateful for good medical care, but I view some people’s quest for a ‘cure’ for aging and death a snare and a delusion. Though I don’t like the thought of creeping infirmity, I have absolutely no wish for earthly immortality. So…I agree with you: it’s good to try to live a little more comfortably with death.

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  2. ​Bravo! A really strong, needed essay, Barry Given your humble beginnings, I’m so happy that you have the financial stability not to age in poverty. The vast majority of us baby boomers will find fears about managing food, shelter and basic care a big distraction from the philosophical issues attendant with aging. I worry that many of us will hope for an earlier, not later, death. Go USA.

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      1. I did not hear any arrogance in your essay, Barry. You were expressing your feeling about the passing of time and the inevitability of death. But thank you for hearing and acknowledging my response.
        When you do finally leave this mortal coil, you will leave having touched many lives directly and indirectly. Just one example: the 5 Boston teens who cooked at Trinity’s summer camp this year had the best time of their lives, earning money, working hard, together and becoming fast friends. You’ve contributed to the greater good in so many ways, large and small. It’s an amazing legacy.

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      2. Whatever I’ve done, it’s only through the on-the-ground leadership of people like you, Toni. There are so many, astonishingly talented and dedicated nonprofit leaders that go unnoticed, even as they improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

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  3. Several of my friends have told me that they do not fear death. That they only fear dying. My ruminations on my death are similar, I think, because I think death is the “period” at the end of my life. The loss of being here is something I cogitate on perhaps because there are so many changes that I would like to see happening and I won’t. Clearly I am not comfortable with death or loss. A colleague mine said that our loses through life help us to learn to let go and experience our carrying on and grieving, and recovering. So that we are prepared and know that we will be okay. As I approach my 80th birthday, I try to not dwell on loss of capacity, pain and ill health. Not so much death.

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  4. Watching the fireworks careening over the ocean tonight I am reminded of our brief time here on earth to leave our bright light and then fade into the universe…Whether it be for a short or long span, the local obituaries tonight aged from 19 to 78, our having walked this planet mattered…The inevitably of death should be a comfort not a fear..Our material gains and wealth are not what will define us..Tonight walking along the beach I noticed an older woman, older than me, and I am 72, struggling to tie her sneakers and crying while doing this…I asked her if I could tie them for her while noticing her gnarled fingers…She accepted gratefully and said she was so frustrated with her limited capabilities that she wanted to walk into the ocean and end her total dependence on others for even the simplest task..I told her I understood her pain…My husband had taken his life three months earlier for the same reasons…Hopefully, she will reconsider… If not, it will be her choice to exit on her terms…

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  5. Excellent article dear brother. When Matk died it actually freed me of any fear of death. I would feel badly that my children would grieve but I feel strongly that I have done all that I needed to do in this life. I worry about being infirmed but I would hope that I could end it before that. I too, think about death more and more but not with sorrow. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thanks, Jackson. I think that you are one of the rare beings who has been freed from a fear of death. The interesting thing is that I have had more responses to this essay than to any other.

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  6. Barry, as you know I have watched some sentient beings leave this life in the last few years. They were all in their 90’s. My dear Norma, mentor, my other mother, at some point decided not to go to the hospital again and she died peacefully in her home with her loved ones close. My valiant father who died just three months’ shy of 98 “never thought about dying” and maintained an unbelievable bearing through the physical suffering he endured with illness until he met his death. He told the nurses at the health center two days prior to his death, “the clan (daughters) is coming and I am going.” Finally, he was able to acknowledge that his time had arrived. Then dear Ernie, my father’s wife for 25 years whom he had married after my mother died, passed away quietly in her bed 8 months after my father died. This is all to say that yes, our time is limited on this earth, for each one of us the amount of time is unknown but it is surely how we choose to live our lives that is perhaps our only defense with this projectory that looms ahead. The call of our families and friends resound and just as when we give birth we take a step into the unknown, so too will we step across the horizon into the abyss? The time will come as the earth turns, so let us dance the dance and radiate the beauty and privilege of life as we walk through it mindful that just as the seasons turn from one to the other that the unbearable beauty of this change in nature makes it all the more brilliant.

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