‘If I am still here in 11 more days …’
My birthday is tomorrow. When my dad reached this same age, he had 10 days left to live. I remember the day we lost him as well as I remember any other day of my life.
I was sitting there in my office, looking out the window at some birds lined up and shivering on a powerline. It was a cold, sunny Friday afternoon. I was thinking about my weekend plans and getting ready to leave when my mom called. And then my plans changed. That’s how life is, and how death is, too.
The night before, my dad was lying in bed smoking a cigarette when his heart exploded. I am sure he had plans of some kind for the next day. There were calls to make, Christmas to sort out. All of us are always in the middle of something.
And then it’s over. So much left undone, unsaid. One thing about death is that it is most often appallingly uncinematic. Here, not here. Just like that. A magician’s trick that happened when we looked away for a split second.
“What happened?” That’s always the first question. There has never been a satisfactory answer for it.
My dad and I were different in some ways, but we also had a lot of things in common, including a fear of aging. The idea of being a burden to someone is terrifying. Especially the specter of losing one’s autonomy, the ultimate nightmare.
That day when you can’t drive anymore. Or when you can’t get in and out of the tub by yourself. For some people, the very idea is unbearable.
My dad reacted to this fear by blazing out of this life like a meteor. He wouldn’t quit smoking, wouldn’t change his diet, wouldn’t listen to his doctors. He lived just as he wanted, stubbornly and fiercely independent to the very end. He understood what the consequences would be and put them in a bear hug anyway.
I chose a different path. I am hardly the picture of health, but I have been going to the gym five days a week for years. I especially like weightlifting.
I like the sound of putting plates on a bar. I like the feel of resistance as I push the weight. I like to see my muscles tighten up under the strain. I like the pump that follows. I have always liked the visceral qualities of it.
Vanity? Yes, of course. Ridiculous? Obviously. It’s just what I’ve come up with as a way of saying “not today” to aging until I think of something better.
I wish I could say that a certain accumulation of years amounts to currency you can use to purchase wisdom and contentment, but the only thing I have really noticed as a truism about aging that is widely agreed upon is how shocking and unsettling it is.
The physical changes come at you like creatures in a zombie movie. Every day when you wash your face in the mirror, there’s a few more wrinkles, a few less hairs. You’re different around the eyes. What’s going on with your neck? The relentlessness of it is maddening.
There at your bathroom mirror, you are surrounded by an army of pills, creams, pastes and potions to fend off this invasion as long and as well as you can. There are clippers and snippers, loofahs and sponges, files and tweezers, all manner of weapons. But still they come, day after day, the age zombies.
The mental part may be even worse. A lot of things you used to remember as easily as drinking water from a glass are now somehow no longer quite so simple. Memories are fragmented. Or distorted. Or locked away in a safe with a combination you can’t quite recall.
You have forgotten how to do a few things. You lose track of other things. Your car keys. That book you started a few days ago. Friends you meant to call. Sometimes you are not sure whether you’ve fed the dog.
You know what? Who cares? You’re still here, and so am I. We’re in it together.
Tomorrow is my birthday. If I am still here in 11 more days, I will write my dad a love letter. Wish you were here. We may still have some cake left.