You'd think we'd learn. We all grow up in families and communities. Grandparents die; aunts and uncles die; pets die; sports heroes die; parents die if you're not lucky; neighborhood children get hit by cars; their sick siblings die off young. It should not be a mystery to us that our day will come. Many people do, however, avoid the true understanding of it.
When other people die, it seems a natural tendency for us to look for ways that their deaths prove our own immunity to the phenomenon. “He was fat,” we say with satisfaction, “he was too fond of fried chicken, pizza, ice cream, and butter.” That one is common if we have been more moderate with a fork and spoon. “He drank too much,” we say if we drink less than he did. Or my favorite, “I eat right and take care of myself.” Good luck with that additional six to eight months. These are terrible strategies when you think about it.
There is no similar explanation when some poor forty-two year old gets ALS and dies within two years. We've all heard of young people dying with zero culpability for their demise. All of us have also known people who lived amazingly long lives during which they drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes all day every day. For all of us, our experience of life is different.
It is often easy to find solace in the blame-game. “See?” we say, “I'm smart enough to avoid that behavior.” When my generation were younger, many entertainers were burning the candle at both ends and the middle. They were burning through their huge incomes at a frightening rate. Cocaine, especially, was the money pit of all time. Even those who used coke to wild excess and lived to tell the tale shake their heads at the vast amounts of cash that they devoted to the enterprise. Whatever the drug or drugs of choice, many of those people passed away young or lived lives that were truncated by the old damage. When a John Belushi dies, it is easy for us to console ourselves. That, certainly, will not happen to us, because we have much more common sense than to shoot speedballs until our heads explode. Actually, we're not that much smarter than John was. We all have our weaknesses. More importantly, it doesn't matter than much. Self-control, in whatever degree, will not save you.
“As you are, I once was; as I am, so shall you be.” Spoken, of course, by skeletons in every Baroque graveyard in Europe. It remains a very important lesson for the living, especially the young ones among us. It is also the single truest thing that you will ever hear, “so shall you be.” The truest statement in human history. Truer even than, “two plus two equals four.” Without a more complete understanding of the sub-atomic world we cannot be that sure of our mathematics. Death however, often preceded by a miserable old age, is a dead certainty.
If you must suffer decrepitude, suffer it like Beethoven did. He was the Jimi Hendrix of his day in the performer stage of his youth, and the toast of Europe and the civilized world in his composer stage later on. He lived long enough to become very weak and go almost completely deaf. He responded with the Ninth Symphony, including it's ecstatic finale, the “Ode to Joy,” one of the most beautiful and positive pieces of music of all time. He had obviously accepted his fate, which after all had included a lot of wonderful things. “You've got to take the bitters with the sweets,” as Muddy Waters said.
Our dreary march through life may often seem quite entertaining, but it is leading only to one place: oblivion. Only our perspective changes as the years tick away.
A lot of men try to put a happy face on turning fifty, but you are definitely feeling it by then. Feeling the loss of hormones, feeling, if you are unlucky, a certain loss of libido. Realizing that the simple flu that you once shook off effortlessly now comes with a fever and really kicks your ass. The writing is on the wall. When I was thirty a nice man about fifty-five years old told me and another youngster that getting old was horrible. “What you used to do all night,” he said ruefully, “now takes all night to do.” I was about fifty when a lawyer friend of mine had his thirty-eighth birthday. He was busy complaining about getting that old, but I set him straight. What I said was, “I'd love to be thirty-eight again for just one weekend.” And it was true, too.
My friend and I had that conversation twenty years ago. If he were complaining to me now about being fifty-eight, I'd say about the same thing. “I'd pay good money to be fifty-eight again for just one weekend.” I remember what fifty-eight felt like, and it wasn't bad. I still felt useful, so to speak. Sure you feel half-dead, because you remember your youth. If you're in your late fifties now, don't start complaining yet. No, you're still doing fine. Believe me, in only about fifteen years, you are going to find out that being three-fourths dead is much, much worse.
The truth of it is that all complaining about getting old is bad form. What are you, special or something? Everybody who has ever been born has grown up and eventually died in his or her turn. Everybody. No one gets out of these blues alive.
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Buddha said it best, or at least very, very well. When he was on his death bed, he noticed that many of his disciples were saddened by his decline. “Why are you sad?” he asked them. “When I was a baby, I was a baby; as a boy, I was a boy; when I became a man, I was a man; as I got older, I became an old man; when it is my time to die, I will die.” He probably added something about how natural it was to die. The most natural thing in the world, and as easy as falling off a log. You may not find it easy, but you must admit that everybody gets the same deal.
Those of us who have lived full lives are the lucky ones. I mean those of us who more or less enjoyed our childhoods and our youth, and who have grown up more or less healthy. Those of us who have lived all of the stages of life should be relieved and grateful to have reached elder status, even if our lives seemed less than ideal on occasion. Anyone who has experienced some happiness along the way, anyone who has had a successful marriage and raised children and maybe even seen some grandchildren, anyone who comfortably made a living and supported an appreciative family, those people, all of them, should say an entire novena of thanksgiving every day. A lot of happiness? Great health? Your children still talk to you? Your families love and respect you? You made a lot of money or inherited a fortune? Yours should be the first voice that God hears in the morning and the last thing that he hears at night. If in the fullness of time you become decrepit and die, even miserably, do not let a simple thing like that interfere with your gratitude.
It's like a joke that I rather like. A family plans a vacation at the shore, and they invite grandma along. In the joke, the family is Jewish, but I don't think that it's a Jew-joke. In fact, I think it's a joke from Jewish (Yiddish) Vaudeville. In the joke, the “shore” is Atlantic City, New Jersey. The lesson might even be taken from the Talmud! It has a great moral to it.
So the family is at the shore, and grandma bothers mom every day, can I take junior down to the water? She wants to show him off to her old-lady friends. Mom resists, “you know he's a bit hard to handle, I don't think that you can keep up with him.” Grandma persists. Finally, on the last day, grandma is allowed to take the boy to the shore. She's so proud! All of a sudden, a huge wave comes up and snap, just like that, it carries the boy away.
“Oh! God help us! Save our boy!” Grandma goes on in this vein until, sure enough, another big wave crashes on the shore and deposits the boy right at her feet! Her prayers were answered! Grandma hustles the boy back away from the water's edge, straightening his clothes and stroking his hair. His hair! “God!” she yells as loud as she can, “he had a hat!”
Moral: when fate has given you almost everything that you could possibly ask for in life, don't be selfish enough to petition fate for missing pieces to the puzzle that don't mean anything in the long run anyway.
I raise my eyes and the Gimlet in my right hand in salute, and I am thankful for my three-score and ten. Thankful for two healthy children who have grown into fine adults. Thankful for two wonderful grandchildren who are, knock on wood, healthy and happy. Thankful for a long marriage that accomplished a lot, even if it ran out of steam a bit early. My life has been neither as easy as some, nor as difficult as others, but I have had a life. I am content.