“Wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been.” – Mark Twain
“Old age is the most unexpected of all the things that can happen to a man.” –James Thurber
“Old age and the passage of time teach all things." –Sophocles
The anthem of the 1960’s was “Live hard and die young.”. The notion at the time was thirty meant the end. As in all things time has swooshed by and here I am staring at myself in the mirror, and I’m horrified. I got old. It was not supposed to happen, that was for other people, not me. I see young people and they look at me that I did then. There was a line from the Beatles movie and “A Hard Days Night.,” When they describe an older character and a “Clean old man.” They described him as if he were from an alien world.
Diverse cultures treat old age differently. In Asia old people are revered. In others it’s simply a passage of time. But in America we are actually and metaphorically pitched into the waist bin of a youth obsessed culture. It’s like we live on an old people planet that is cut off from the real world. My trainer wants to give me the fist bump but was not sure I would understand it, like I was an alien. I remember a friend was surprised that I knew who Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were. It was laughable except for the complete ignorance. Like I live under a rock. Being old is an odd experience, we look out at the world as we always have, but others see us differently. They see a more crinkled deadened version of what we feel.
We are still healthy, think in many ways like we did when we were young and act like we always have in many ways, but the responses are a bit different. We still love music, can work on a computer, play games, even have sex. So, watching how others respond to our dotage is rather surprising. We feel marginalized in silent looks or no looks at all. We try to keep ourselves up, stay in shape, eat right, not drink too much. Drugs are sort of off the table as we don’t respond like we used to, and we don’t feel immortal anymore. We are in an age where we can fix most things that get worn out, so it’s a good time to be old.
Mortality then becomes kind of a thing. It feels closer every day. How do we function with that thing looming over our heads? There is ample evidence of our demise staring back at us. Those lines, the eyes, skin are all sliding or scrunching. What to do about the inevitable?
My uncle used to say as he was turning ninety, (a man who was as active a person as I ever knew) that he was enjoying the ride. He was amazingly energetic until the end. He was my light, my soul, and my friend. He was a very loved person and I miss him every day.
As Baba Ram Das pointed out in his later years, the good thing about getting older is we acquire wisdom, feel less anxious and can find some inner peace. That makes it worth the ride. That peace brings contentment and a sense that time has passed but was not wasted. We urge young people to make use of time and we encourage them to not spend precious youth worrying.
We watch advertisements about looking younger, having youthful this and that. Like there is a way to stave off the inevitable and being old is the worst thing one can do. The idea is to do everything possible to retain youth. Isn’t it true that the Spanish came to this country looking for the fountain of youth? The search for immortality is not a new concept.
I think looking young is our cultural fetish which encapsulates the fear of death by focusing on the reverse. Heaven is also a great invention to stave off the fear of death and nothingness. We go to a better place if we are good. If not, then off we go to eternal hell. Sounds like a solution to bad behavior and death all at once. I will not go all cynical about religion but most people either buy into the dream of heaven or they don’t. Jews are completely twisting in the wind because they do not believe in heaven.
Was it death then? Nothingness? All we really know is that dead means gone, like gone. Death is so complete. In that sense death is unfathomable. It’s impossible to understand. It will not go away and keeps returning again and again. Our losses are so great that we go to great lengths to communicate with the dead. Through prayer, God, Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed. We try to invent ways of coping by imagining another world to go to. In the end we’re just not here.
This is leading up to the idea that it’s not really about death but life. How we make the most of it. How we find peace, love our family and friends, find joy, and then dance in the moonlight. When we think of it what is there to worry about? Why are we so anxious about what other people are going to think? In the end we will be gone gone, so why not love everybody. What is all the fussing and fighting about? It’s all terminal. So, have some fun, get down and live it up. Work hard at something you enjoy and don’t sweat the small stuff, and as the saying goes, it’s all small stuff compared to death.
Here is a story about death for you. When I was 28 years old, I was working all day as a teacher and playing music and writing at night. Not to mention some substances to keep things going. I developed an infection and went to the doctor, and he gave me antibiotics. They also removed any immunities that I had, and I contracted the Hong Kong flu. When it hit me, I literally passed out. Much like Covid I had a fever of 106 and was delirious. I was in horrible pain, body aches and fever. I was shivering and shaking. I had a waking dream that felt quite real. I was riding my bicycle down my old dirt road with no hands and no handlebars, playing a tune on the clarinet. It was a single melody on a balmy summer’s day. I slowly began to float upward, my body aches went away, it was pure bliss, I could see myself down below and I felt joyful. I was ready to move on. Then something clicked and like a loudspeaker, a woman’s distinctive voice said, “We’ve decided, it’s not your time yet, you have too much to do.”
Suddenly, I found myself at the sink in my bathroom, splashing water on my face. The fever was gone, I was very weak but felt otherwise fine. Here’s the kicker. While I was floating upward, I looked around the room and noticed a piece of chalk on the crown molding that was previously used to mark the wall because at one time wallpaper was put up. I had not seen it because it was about seven feet high. I went back to that place and sure enough there it was. I was shocked.
Cut to twenty years later, after I became a psychotherapist, I was attending a near death conference and the person who was speaking said that health care workers had reported a near death experience and have heard the phrase, guess what, “We’ve decided it’s not your time yet, you have too much to do. I nearly fell out of my chair. Since then, I have read a bunch about near death and death experiences. Elizabeth Kubler Ross wrote a controversial book on death and dying. For me, the jury is out. I now have a wait and see attitude. There may be something on the other side and then again there may not. One way or the other I will find out and that’s okay with me.
As I am burrowing down towards the end of my life, I can see the end coming. It is also that people remind me all the time by cancelling me out of our culture. I love it when people say that old people look spry. What is spry anyway? We don’t say that about young people now do we. Which leads me to my main point in this short little essay.
So, what’s the point of all this? I suppose the theme here is to make the most of this brief candle and consider the moment in time we are in rather than ruminating about the future or the past. Living happens and we need to happen with it. Gratitude, presence, perspective, forgiveness, fun and love, especially love is what makes life happen for us. Enjoy the ride. The rest of it is out of our hands. Take some time each day to appreciate how special this time really is. Even though life is difficult it only happens once. Don’t forget that