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.