By Bob Litton
“Death is only a statistical probability. Each of us runs the risk of becoming the first immortal.” [Source forgotten. A citation would be appreciated.]
My annual hourglass flipped over last month, and I turned 73.
I had noticed a few months earlier how difficult it was to specify my age. I am no woman and therefore felt no uneasiness about declaring my age…if I knew it; but, when you feel, after a few months, that saying you are 72 is prevaricating and saying you are 73 is foolishly rushing the aging process a bit, then you realize you are in a quandary. Of course, one may be microscopic about it and calculate one’s exact temporal state by saying, for instance, “Right now I am 72 years, ten months, 28 days and 6-1/2 hours old.” That certainly should satisfy any lust for fastidious candor, but it would require a chronometric skillfulness that I entirely lack. The only alternative I can imagine is to avoid all situations in which the subject might arise.
But back, for now, to women. Many a comedic punchline has revolved around this supposed dread of theirs that their age might be revealed when they pass over the 30 years bridge. I never quite understood this fear; since, minus face-lifts, a woman’s age will be relatively gaugeable in her appearance. Much guesswork, of course, will be involved in that gauging; for we have a preconception, based admittedly on a lifetime’s experience, about what a person of a certain age should look like.
When someone we meet proves an exception to that preconception we can be shocked. I met a woman a couple of years ago and still encounter her regularly at our small town’s senior center. The first time I saw her, she was weighing herself on the center’s scale; and I wondered why because she is of good proportions, upright carriage, seemingly in excellent health but with snow white hair. I asked her how old she was, expecting the usual feminine demur, and she readily informed me that she was 90-something. (I can’t remember what the exact second digit was.) “You’re in great shape!” I exclaimed in surprise as she stepped off the scale. Had she wished to fib, I would easily have accepted a figure in the 70s or early 80s at the most. The other habitués of the senior center recently heartily congratulated this woman of dignified bearing on the 98th anniversary of her birth; but I just smiled at her, for, to me, we who survive past 70 have additional life burdens to bear: a sharper anticipation of the end and an acknowledgment that our options are now severely limited, compared to what they had been just a few years earlier. How can I genuinely feel joyful or appreciative of that, either for me or for another?
There is, of course, a more positive angle from which to view longevity, at least for the witnesses: that is, experiencing or perceiving the accomplishments of long-lived achievers. Artist Pablo Picasso fathered his fourth child, Anne Paloma Picasso, when he was 68; and actor Tony Randall had two children in his 70s, the second, Jefferson Salvinia Randall, when Tony was 78. Although I recognize the enviable virility those birthings reflect, I don’t see them as sensible actions; a child doesn’t just need a father; he or she needs fathering in the nurturing sense. Picasso and Randall also continued to achieve in their art forms well into their last years. There is no apparent consensus about when creative types peak. One report I read noted that poets seem to peak out in their 20s, while novelists blossom later — in their 40s or 50s. Nonetheless, many ordinary individuals have led extraordinary lives, full of adventures and humorous episodes, that can serve as material for entertaining their grandchildren. Also, the unity and historicity of a family can be dependent to a great extent on the events recounted by elders.
At the personal level, I feel that exceeding 70 has not fit in well with either my psyche or my lifestyle. I have had more than enough years to contribute to Humanity’s store of valuables. Moreover, since I did not father any children — which my reputed intellect indicates that I should have — the number of future solvers of the world’s problems, both ongoing and fresh, is fewer by the very number I might have sired, assuming they would have survived long enough to buttress other solvers’ efforts. But that is beyond correction now; what I have done is done; and I am left with little more than the quotidian and fantasies to occupy me.
I don’t know when the quotidian ordinarily begins to annoy any individual or even when exactly it began to annoy me. I feel confident in averring that I was at least in my 30s before I became sensitive to the repetitiveness of ablutions and chores, greetings and farewells, dawn and dusk. Many actions in a day, among professionals anyway, can be various, but enough of the humdrum remain to slacken one’s sail. And what of those many deadend jobs of the mind-numbingly repetitive sort? I have worked for brief periods (through temporary employment agencies) at enough tedious assignments — forming cardboard boxes at a biscuit factory, sorting items off a conveyor belt at a gewgaw manufacturer’s, pressure-hosing gum off the walkways at a shopping mall — to realize how threatening to the spirit those jobs can be. What must such work do to someone who has no other opportunities available? I imagine such luckless persons would age quite fast unless their mental capacities were so far below average as to render the tasks in fact challenges.
As for fantasies, a companion habitué of the coffee shop and I recently discovered that we have a significant characteristic in common other than our age and gender: dreams. We both have caught ourselves in the ridiculous state of considering another profession. My acquaintance still dreams of being an artist, while I have a hankering to go to California and argue my eligibility for a screen test. Oh, I know I am too old to play the male lead in a romantic comedy, but I could be a character actor like Burl Ives or Walter Brennan. [I swear! Walter Brennan looked like the same old man from Red River (1948) to The Over-the-Hill Gang Rides Again (1970).] But that long trip to California, carrying all these broken bones, for much less than a certain success hasn’t deluded my residual common sense.
Whatever else one may say, good or bad, about aging, there are a couple of definite ineradicable truths that should not be ignored: our world of friends and usefulness shrinks, and Death controls the curtain. We find that all of a sudden we are attending more funerals than weddings; that there is no way of forming friendships as intimate and long-lasting as those who once filled the chairs in the coffee shops and bars we frequented; and that the strangers we walk past on sidewalks and in mall corridors seem even stranger. Eventually, too, we are told by the younger folk that they have “heard that story already”; even we begin to sense that we are repeating ourselves. For the what time? And we realize somewhere en route that we are no longer invulnerable like we were when we were young. The real problem about Death, for many of us, is not that we will die but that we don’t know what Death is. We can’t really imagine oblivion, even though many of us have experienced it in some form — sleep, coma, viral encephalitis. Many people still believe in a Heaven — a kind of Garden of Eden in which every virtuous person who has ever lived will be eternally happy doing…what? A long continuation of what we have done here on Earth, even though it might be blessed with more harmonious relations and a more comfortable climate, seems too much tainted with unavoidable boredom. There are only so many tunes you can play on a harp.
As for me, I keep telling myself not to try to figure that mystery out because it’s impossible. I don’t know what I felt or thought while I was in the womb; most likely that will be the case when I am in the tomb.