We don't die all at once, as though we were alive one minute and dead the next. Neither do we age and die one year at a time. It's more like we stay on a certain plateau for a few years until some event pushes us along the road to death. We die a little bit at a time, at intervals. That point was driven home to me at the age of thirty-eight when I experienced a burst appendix after six months of what had been a mysterious malady. It was mysterious in my case mostly because I didn't have insurance. Someone with insurance in the same situation would have been diagnosed properly, using various scans and maybe an MRI, and the problem would have been discovered. But that's another story. As so often happens, I digress before I even begin! On that occasion, I lived, so all's well that ends well, right?
The point is that after those months of weakness due to undiagnosed infection, and after pillar to post abdominal exploratory surgery, and after a period of recuperation, I had the clear impression that I had aged at least five years, when really only a bit under a year had passed. I don't think that I had changed at all for the five years previous to the onset of the infection. Afterwards, however, the weight that I had lost came back in a different shape, my resistance to things like viruses and infections was lower, and immediately thereafter I began to put on weight without having changed my eating or exercise habits at all. If anything, I was eating better and less. Aging is like a French New Wave movie: it comes in jump-cuts.
The Build Up To Death
For me, as I am sure it is for many other people, I hardly seemed to age at all between the ages of twenty-five and forty, except for losing a bit of hair around the “male pattern baldness” spot and that episode with the appendix. After that, every little health challenge seemed to knock a bit more of the wind out of me.
That's another important phenomenon, the shift in the tide of our lives that happens more or less around our fortieth year, give or take five or six years, depending on the individual. For one friend of mine, it happened around the age of thirty-two, and he was dead way before he turned sixty. It happened to Clint Eastwood much later than forty, but the tide finally changed on him as well. For the first forty or so years of our lives, the tide is rushing in. We are full of life, immune to viruses, bacteria, and the effects of drinking and cigarettes. After forty, and from then on, we become increasingly susceptible to all of those things. We have begun, in fact, the process of dying, a little bit at a time, and most of it happens in those jump-cuts.
I was very lucky, myself. I wasn't very careful about my health, other than some fortuitous accidents. My diet as a child was just terrible, consisting mostly of sugar, pan-fried meats, and buttered bread. When I got to high school, I supplemented this meager fare with some pizza every chance I got. The only vegetables visible in my house were potatoes and cans of peas. The canned peas could remain in the cabinets for years. My mother rarely cooked even the potatoes. There was never any fruit. Then I married a woman who was raised in a family where they actually ate nutritious food. Thanks to her efforts in our family's kitchen, my sons and I had a rather good diet.
Regarding exercise, I got an awful lot of exercise before I got married. The atmosphere in my house was so poisonous that I remained outside as much as possible, and when there were no games going on I simply walked around looking for friends or something to do. After I got married, I had jobs that included a lot of exercise for twenty years. I carried the mail; I worked in warehouses for ten years; my wife and I were child-care providers. I was on my feet for almost all of every working day, walking and lifting things. But you die anyway. You cannot eat or exercise your way out of it.
After forty, I was at law school or working as a lawyer. That's a more sedentary lifestyle. Either way, though, no one gets out of these blues alive. I was still luckier than most. My weight went up and down a bit, but at sixty-eight years old I weighed only 160 pounds and got a fair amount of exercise, eating a pretty good diet of mostly Thai food and sandwiches. Then I came to a major jump-cut.
The jump cut of all time, as it turns out. It was brought on by that soap-operaish moment when I was forced to confront the fact that I had never been more to my parents than a source of embarrassment and disappointment. The was the moment shortly after the death of my father, the second of them to die, when I discovered that he thought so little of me that he declined to trust me with even a nickel of his money, nor even with the care of one book or other item of property. Nothing in the will about me but the usual threats aimed at obvious potential heirs who are zeroed out. To add insult to injury, he left what would have been my share to my ex-wife. That would be the woman who kicked me out after forty years of marriage and told me never to come back, and then had the nerve to complain when I filed for divorce after five years of forced exile. Not having that money reduced my medical security considerably, and will almost certainly shorten my life. And whatever my father thought, you may believe me that I would not have squandered any of it on fancy cars or vacations. To me, bank money is sacred. Bank money is for matters of life and death, like doctor bills.
This happened almost three years ago, and it has added no less than ten years to my actual age. That means that my internal organs are acting like I'm eighty years old. That makes it “Bucket List” time.
I am just beginning to relax about those family matters. It's terrible to be so outmaneuvered by a dead man, by what the law calls, “the bony hand from the grave.” This was a man who effectively abandoned us when I was ten and my sister was six. These people are clever, though. They set up the play so that they appear blameless. My father stopped coming home from work. He would come home evenings for one or two days at a time, and on those days he would arrive home late from work, or the airport, make his own dinner, and sit by himself, reading and listening to music on the radio, generally opera. He made sure to present his charming person at every family gathering, on every holiday. All of my cousins think that he was the best dad of all time. At all other times he left my sister and me at home alone with my mother, a bitter, violent, resentful all-day drinker who seems to have blamed her failed marriage on me. (It was a little better for my sister, I am happy to report.) Between them, they left me with an ACE score of five out out of six. (The only one that I missed out on was sexual abuse, thank God for little favors.) I have since deduced from evidence that my mother was blaming me for the large monthly household budget overrun caused by her bottle-per-day drinking habit. She covered it by telling my father that my allowance was thirty dollars per week. Bear in mind that this was when either a piece of pizza or a ride on the subway cost fifteen cents. $125 per month was a mortgage payment! No wonder my father always saw me as a wasteful spendthrift. I had to laugh at that one, but he believed it, and she got away with it.
The will thing was a blow that I almost did not recover from. There were immediate physical repercussions. Orthopedic, dental, cardiac, and psychological. At odd points during the day I would mumble, “but I was a good boy!” And I was. Not to mention that I was very good to them as an adult. I chose to accept their shortcomings and be a loving son to them. We must set a good example for our own children. I called my mother often, and we spoke for a long time. We visited every year, taking turns making the coast to coast trip. For the last nine years of my father's life, I visited him every year around his birthday. Flying from Thailand, no less! I'm bitter about it, I'll admit. (Incidentally, I now get the cold shoulder from my sons, too.)
The Actual Dying
My own belief about death has not changed since I first formulated it in my late teens. I expect being dead to be the single easiest thing that I have ever done. In many ways, I am looking forward to it. I've been over this ground on the blog before, so I'll keep it short. Before we were born, we had no existence of any kind. After we die, we revert to that state of nothingness. When I came to this conclusion, over fifty years ago, the belief made me an outlier, but now I encounter more and more people who have come to the identical, obvious conclusion. The being dead part is unthreatening and unchallenging. It's the dying part that give us all pause.
But hey, it's been done by every human being that has ever lived on the earth. Done successfully and with no particular effort required. Even suicide, where indicated, is dead easy. (Get it?) Death may be painful; it may be disgusting; it may be embarrassing; but it has been done by everyone who ever lived. And having accomplished the actual dying part, you won't be around to worry about it.
So how hard can it be?