I once mentioned in a reply to someone’s posted comment that cheery though this blog usually appears to be in its attention to “the good things in life,” a dark undercurrent runs below each piece — silently for the most part, but occasionally surfacing.
Thoughts of death and dying.
It’s all very well to try practicing living “in the now” when you’re getting old. I may even be luckier than most in that I have a constitutional inability to multi-task or multi-think. A former boss charged with giving me the dreaded annual review at the Big Law Firm where in days gone by I used to labor remarked of my work that every single piece of it was excellent, but I seemed unable to pay attention to more than one thing at a time. (A grave flaw in legal practice, where adroitly juggling open cases is a must.) She used the analogy of beads on a string; I focused only on the bead in front of me and was oblivious to the beads lined up behind it.
However, life makes such oblivion to what’s coming down the pike harder to maintain with any consistency as one ages. The earliest big loss for most of us is the death of our parents. Clementine Churchill said (or wrote) it first: It’s very hard to realize one is nobody’s child. When that happens, the loss is not the only pain. There’s also the frightening recognition no one is still ahead of us. We’re next.
Then it begins to happen. Holes appear in our sense of the world. I still can’t contemplate one of those iPhone-illustrated trips to New York that you periodically read about here without first thinking I must let Cathy know I’m coming. Maybe we can get together to do something beforehand. But I can’t let Cathy know. Although she lived in New York all her life (even went to Barnard College), and we never lost touch since meeting in 1960, she doesn’t live there anymore. She doesn’t live anywhere. Cancer took her away two years ago, after a rotten four years of surgery, sickness and pain, despite her being six years younger than I am. I still have a red linen summer dress in my closet bought on one of our joint shopping expeditions in New York because she urged me to get it. Every time I see the dress on its hanger, I think of her. And I can’t get rid of the dress, because the dress is the last I have of her.
Another hole in my universe — an even bigger one — also opened the year Cathy died, although I didn’t learn of it until last year. That one I did write about (in “Why There’s No Post Today,”) because I couldn’t not. Sometimes I still wonder how he’s doing and what he’s doing — until I remember he’s not doing anything anymore because he’s just ashes scattered somewhere. (And I don’t even know where.)
No one within twenty years of my age whom I’ve met since moving to Princeton is untouched. One lost a husband (also a lawyer), just turned seventy, to pancreatic cancer. Another is married to a brilliant man in his seventies severely debilitated by Parkinson’s. A woman two years older than I (an architectural historian) is legally blind and rapidly losing what vision is left to macular degeneration that no longer responds to treatment; it’s harder and harder for her to read anything, even on Kindle at its most enlarged. A year ago she had a stroke and a heart attack. She survived both, underwent cardiac surgery and prolonged physical therapy, and can now very slowly maneuver her way around the facility to which she and her husband (with pulmonary problems) have moved, but needs an aide or a friend to accompany her. Since she can still make out enough of movies to enjoy them, I have occasionally been picking her up and taking her out to lunch, then to a movie of her choice, and then back to the facility where she now lives. However, except for her two adult sons (one of whom drives from Boston and back to see her and the other from New York), I don’t think any of her former acquaintances come. People are embarrassed or scared when the Grim Reaper seems to be hovering near.
Yesterday, Bill ( aged 87 1/2) called his closest friend, who still lives in Cambridge (Massachusetts), to say hello. Being men, they don’t touch base as often as women might do, but the feeling runs deep. They’ve known each other a long time. The friend — also a retired psychiatrist — will soon be 91. He is long divorced but has a daughter and two grandchildren a couple of towns away. A year ago he sounded hale and relatively hearty, although I believe he could no longer drive. In February, when they last spoke, he had had a heart attack, described as “relatively minor.” However, since then he has become extremely weak. Two weeks ago he fell and broke an elbow. He can no longer walk at all. He uses a commode. He has round-the-clock care, from aides he describes as just so-so. He sounds (Bill says) very frail. He is waiting to die. I thought of perhaps trying to drive up there this summer (Bill and I spelling each other at the wheel) so that they could see each other one more time, but his daughter says he’s in hospice care and might not live that long. She hopes the end comes swiftly to save him more pain and unhappiness. Understandably, Bill is unhappy, too. He says it’s not only about his friend. It’s about himself as well. I never really knew Bill’s friend, except to say hello to, but what makes Bill unhappy comes round full circle to me, as I still share a bed with him, thank God.
We will both get past it. For now. But in the interests of fuller disclosure — although, chatty though I may seem, there are still many things I do not “share” — I thought those of you who aren’t really here yet (whatever you may think of those first few wrinkles and sags you spy in the mirror) should probably know that “getting old” isn’t always the picnic reflected in this blog — despite the nature photos, trips to New York, flattering selfies and two cute kitties.
However, there are still distractions. For instance: the New York Rangers and the Tampa Bay Lightning are tied 2-2 in Round Three of the NHL Eastern Conference, and Game 5’s tonight. My gut feeling is that the Rangers will win, but I welcome surprises. Didn’t guess I knew anything about pro hockey, did you? Well, I don’t really. But I am interested in the outcome because I’m connected by blood to the guy who screams “S-c-o-r-e!” for Tampa. So I’m hoping he gets to scream “S-c-o-r-e!” often tonight.
See? I’m cheering up just thinking that might happen!