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Saturday
Feb042012

Reflections on getting older

I am of an age when certain seemingly instinctual urges have kicked in.  For instance, starting about ten years ago I found myself impelled to read the obituaries in the newspaper each day - a subject that previously held no interest for me whatsoever.  But now, for the past ten years and into the foreseeable future I have and will continue to scan the obits.  And not, as the joke goes, to make sure I'm still alive.

Why this sudden (perverse?) desire to read the obituaries?  I cannot point to any precipitating event, any apparent causal factor or conscious decision to do this.  I'm inclined to chalk this up to something truly instinctual, like the spawning of salmon.  It is humankinds way, perhaps, of adjusting our focus, of looking at the world in a different way - and appropriately so.  A biological clock within us that at a certain age rings a bell, softly, yes, but loud enough so to get our attention and say, in effect, "look here, take note of this!"

There are other, more obvious signs of aging: people around me I know are dying.  No longer the unexpected shock of a young person whose life is tragically cut short, as in the case of a high school friend who was athletic and in good health his entire life, and then, in his early fifties, suddenly dead of a massive heart attack brought about by an enlarged heart which he'd carried like a ticking time bomb his whole life unknowingly.  No, not that genuine shock, but rather the all-too-becoming-familiar resigned acceptance that this is the norm, indeed, the way of the future.

I send my mother links and clips of obituaries from our hometown of friends of hers who have passed away.  I feel guilty - she is in her eighties and already too familiar with her mortality, having lost my father a decade ago, and many friends in the intervening years.  She should not be burdened with more bad news.  And yet I'm compelled to do this: after all, wouldn't she want to know that a friend with whom she had spent many an enjoyable evening playing bridge is gone?  Wouldn't she?  Am I doing her any favors if I withhold the information?

It is not easy or familiar, this coming to grips, however reluctantly, with my own mortality.

Nor am I even certain that I'm actually "coming to grips" with it, or of what that would actually entail.  I'm unmistakeably aware of death's looming in a way I never was in my younger years, but am I dealing with it or any more prepared for it?  I don't know that I am.  It is hard, very hard, to think of one's extinction at some undetermined point in the future.

Perhaps if I were a religious person, in the sense of believing in an afterlife, this wouldn't be such a hard, hard thing to confront.  After all, there's the consolation that passing out of this life is simply ending one chapter and beginning a new one.  All of us who can read are familiar with that.  It even, in a way, provides something to look forward to: the next stage in a continually unfolding script: one without end.

But I can find no consolation in that, as I can find no basis for accepting an afterlife, other than the Biblical assurance "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" which in my mind allows me to continue as part of the great chain of being.  But it is a chain which does not allow for consciousness in whatever my next state of being is, and therefore no sense of me, of existing, of loving and of watching those I love pass away before me, knowing that at some juncture their fate will be mine.

So is there any upside to this discovery of my mortality? 

Maybe.  Perhaps a tendency to take less for granted, to weigh more carefully decisions in light of their possible consequences, and certainly, to treasure more the time I spend among those friends whose company I have chosen (and to choose more carefully going forward who I will allow into my life).

I spend an afternoon or two a week at a local pub - a place I have frequented for a quarter century now, since I first worked there out of graduate school while I searched about for a 'real' job.  I am surrounded mostly by people I have known that long and by virtue of the pub which is our mutual gathering place.  These are people with whom, over the years, I have laughed and cried, debated and had (sometimes violent) arguments.  But I find these days that I am less inclined to violent arguments and more to the realization of how much we have shared and how lucky I am to be surrounded by people with whom I have history and friendship.

Looking back, I am aware of many friendships in my younger years that I let escape me.  Sometimes from simple neglect, sometimes from an argument where pride prevented me from simply picking up the phone and apologizing - whether or not I felt I was to blame.  Back then I had lots of friends, it seemed.  So the loss of one did not seem significant.  Today I know how significant the loss of one is.  So it is avoided at nearly all costs.

And finally, an openness to love that I was never able to find in my youth, when everything was about me.  For much of my life love was simply inconvenient, no matter how much I desperately wanted to be in love and to be loved.  Whenever the opportunity presented itself I found ways to sabotage the possibility of love.  It took me many years and many failed relationships to come to a place where finally I found someone with whom I am able to revel in and submit to, in the sense of placing her needs above my own.  Someone who has made me realize that twenty is perhaps best lived at sixty.

How did that happen, after a lifetime of living life 'my way'?  Perhaps the growing realization of my own mortality has finally cleared away enough debris to prepare soil that is fertile enough to sustain love of another.

If that is the wisdom that comes with age and a sense of one's finitude, it is enough for me.