Now that I am, shall we say, of a certain age, I’ve been wrestling with the notion that one of these days — hell, one of these minutes — the world’s population will decrease by exactly one: me.
By the way, aren’t the French terrific for all their mots justes, all the ways they can comfortably express things that otherwise are too frightening or off-putting or sensitive to even mention? The line I use above, “of a certain age,” comes directly from the French, d’un certain âge, referring, of course, to the most ancient of fossils, lucky to still be able to draw a single breath. Wordmeister William Safire in 1995 wrote about the term in the New York Times. Funny thing is, acc’d’g to Safire, the numerical age the line refers to has been going up steadily ever since it first appeared in print in the English language in 1754. Its first usage, way back then, says he, implied a not terribly superannuated female who clearly was not interested in getting married. And, back then, if a woman remained unmarried by the age of, say 28 or 29, well, she was officially and incontrovertibly a spinster. Which term itself illustrates how colorful and rich the English language can be.
Anyway, let me admit right here and now that the tangent I took in the above paragraph was my way of avoiding the topic at hand, which is my own mortality.
So, let me try to take that plunge again.
I’m 66 years years old. No longer can I pretend to be middle aged. I’m collecting Social Security. I’m semi-retired. These days, I find myself incapable of doing only seven tenths of the things I could do when I was 40. And hell, I was no kid when I was 40, for pity’s sake!
I have more comorbitities than fingers on my right hand. I swallow nine prescription drugs every morning to keep various organs and systems functioning at some minimal level. It takes me precious seconds to remember people’s names or blurt out some witty remark in casual conversation, things I was able to do in the time it took for my synapses to fire just a few short years ago. It too often hurts to walk, stand, sit, or lie down. A defibrillator is implanted in my chest. I have at least one metal joint, with a second due as soon as I can face the prospect of another surgery. My knees creak. My bowels balk. My hair is white.
Speaking of hair, more grows out of my ears and nose than on the front half of my scalp.
And, speaking of short years, each passing one becomes shorter and shorter as I grow older. On my last day of school when I was in eighth grade, I could look forward to a summer vacation that would last forever. September? Who cares?! That’s as far in the future as the year 2525.
Now, years are like weeks. Weeks like minutes.
I am old. The corollary: I’m that much closer to death.
There. I’ve said it. Death.
Truth is, I’ve been thinking about — and trying my best not to think about — death since I was a kid. Search me why, but from my earliest memories I can recall justifying decisions by saying to myself, How will I feel about this when I’m on my deathbed? Conversely, the very idea that there would be a deathbed in store for me was a notion that scared the living bejesus out of me.
How could this world go on without me in it?
One of the landmarks of adultness is accepting — grudgingly — the reality that the world indeed will continue to spin, that people will still go to work, make love, visit the Grand Canyon, bounce their children on their knees, laugh, cry, run, jump, nap, smell flowers, and sneeze from their pollen even after I die.
Child development experts long have recognized that the youngest of children see all existence as this thing that revolves around them. When a six-month old is hungry, someone comes out of the murkiness and feeds them. When that young’un loads her diaper, bang, someone’s there to take it off, clean her nethers, and put on a fresh, new one. All this happens as if by magic. The kid doesn’t have to do anything but be.
Then we go through a series of often difficult, occasionally traumatic realizations that the universe contains a few more things in it than us. Than me.
After a few decades, we start to grasp that the universe, in fact, does not need me. That when me no longer exists nothing really changes. The following characters viewed themselves as the most important, indispensable individuals in the world: Ramses II, Alexander the Great, Qin She Huang, Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun, Charlemagne, Genghis Kahn, Mehmed II, Elizabeth I, Louis XIV, Peter the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Victoria, Joseph Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. All ruled significant swaths of the world. All died. The world went on.
Were they, somehow, able to look back and see how the rest of humanity went on laughing, crying, running, jumping, napping, smelling flowers, and sneezing from their pollen even after they were gone, would they be surprised?
The six-year-old still residing in me would be. The 66-year-old wouldn’t. I came to that realization, again, grudgingly.
The landmark moment came to me one night, in a terrifying dream. I was standing on the edge of an abyss. Next to me was a black, empty, endless chasm. I couldn’t stop it from happening so I fell into it. I’d never felt so terrified, so panicky, yet so liberated in all my life.
I realized the dream was a metaphor for dying. That’s the way we writers think. Just our luck.
In any case, ever since that night, I’ve been reconciled to the idea that, yep, one day — maybe even one minute from now — I’m going to die. I can’t fight it. I can only accept it.
Mind you, I didn’t say I was entirely thrilled about it.