I’m sorry, I know, that’s the clickbaitiest title EVER. But you have to admit: It’s true.
Ever since my father died, less than a year and a half ago, I find myself thinking a lot more about aging and death and the impermanence of, well, everything.
I’m more acutely aware of how tenuously tethered to life we all are, and how final death is; how strange and sad it is that it inevitably all just….stops.
I’m guessing this is not uncommon when a parent or other loved one dies. Especially when their death comes suddenly—or, in my father’s case, sooner than expected.
After he passed, I took possession of his beat-up old LL Bean canvas laptop briefcase (monogrammed, naturally, because LL Bean) containing his old computer—the world’s slowest laptop, running on Windows 1978, I think.
My dad took that laptop bag everywhere, and it was a ubiquitous presence in my parents’ house. He was always writing stories or reflections or poems or mini-political manifestos, or reading or replying to emails (on AOL, naturally, because Boomer) having to do with his multitude of activities: local theater, business ventures, community groups, his UU church where he a couple of times gave lay sermons. (My dad liked to sermonize. Interpret that as you will…).
It was only in the last few, difficult weeks of his life, when his stage IV colon cancer began causing severe pain and started to affect his kidney function that he slowed down. And yet, even after a last, emergency surgery, less than two weeks before he died, he still thought maybe he’d be able to do the guest sermon he’d planned to give a few weeks later, and finish the market research project he’d started for a local arts organization. In the hospital, half delirious, he was telling my mother about people she should get in touch with, to let them know he wouldn’t be able to make such-and-such meeting tomorrow, and that he might need to push back the date of some thing he was supposed to do.
He hadn’t yet grasped or accepted the idea that he no longer had a future; that his busy, active live was about to come to a screeching halt. How could he? How can anyone?
A week or so after his death, when I waded through his computer looking for documents worth saving and emails in need of responses (This is Gar’s daughter…I’m sorry to say that my father has passed away…), I could barely grasp it myself: How can life just end right in the middle of so much…life? All that rich, meaningful engagement and activity, over, just like that.
Recently, my mom asked me to look through his computer again, in search of a particular document. (Sweet JESUS that computer is slow.) This time when I looked at the remnants of my father’s extinguished existence, it wasn’t with the same sense of disbelief. The fact of his death has settled in a bit more. Instead, I saw it through the lens of my own mortality: Someday all of my hundreds of documents and emails will be sitting here on my computer with no me left to read them.
When you’re riding the current of your life, busy and generally happy, it’s hard to believe it won’t just go on forever. And, let’s face it: it’s a goddamned drag to remember that it won’t.
I’ll never forget the time when I found my kiddo Elm—maybe six or so at the time—crying inconsolably in their bed one evening just before I tucked them in. When I asked them what was wrong they said, through sobs, “We all have to die! And it’s forever and there’s no magic or anything to make it not happen!”
I didn’t quite know how to comfort Elm, except to say that all we can do is not focus on death, but enjoy our lives. I told them that they had years and years of life ahead of them (leaving out the more truthful “most likely”). I probably also said something about how the fact that we don’t live forever helps us enjoy life more. (Because, sure, that’s something a six-year-old can grasp…)
I couldn’t tell them that they were wrong, though. I couldn’t take away the blunt, brutal fact that life ends.
And now here I am, in my mid-forties (shut up, 47 does too count as mid-forties), with one less parent in the world, feeling a lot more like Elm did at six than I did back then at 38, when I told Elm they had oodles of time ahead. Back then, I felt like I had oodles of time, too.
I mean, yes, God-willing, I still have at least an oodle or so yet in front of me. But it’s not the same as having your whole life ahead of you—or even most of your life. It’s not the same as feeling like there’s still a chance to fulfill all your dreams and try all the things you want to try. There’s not the same sense of possibility, or the feeling that life is one big adventure. I know what’s ahead, more or less, with regard to my work and career and daily routine. And there are parts of it—my kids leaving for college, more relatives dying—that I’m absolutely dreading.
Shit, am I having a mid-life crisis?
I’m having a mid-life crisis, aren’t I. Damn. What a cliché. Maybe I should lean into it — get a tattoo or have a fling with the pool boy or something. (We have neither a pool nor a boy to tend it, though, so I’d need to borrow someone else’s. PM me.)
It’s not like I’m fundamentally unhappy, though. In fact, I’m frequently astonished by my good fortune. And hey, it’s not entirely a bad thing to be more aware of the impermanence of life, right? It makes you appreciate the good stuff more. It makes you not sweat things like broken dishes or dust on the baseboards or a few more lines around your eyes. It also makes it a little easier to offload clutter—something we’ve been doing a lot of—when you’re acutely aware that at some point it’s all going to be rendered ownerless and meaningless anyway. (Aren’t I fun?!)
But here’s an even better thing: I’m pretty sure that as a lot of people get older, past this weird, liminal place that is mid-life, they are more accepting of the finite nature of their lives. It doesn’t strike them as quite so tragic. They get over themselves and their unrealized ambitions, and savor the time they have.
I want to be that kind of person. I really do.
In the meantime, though, I may still need to get a tattoo.
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