I'm going to be sixty this year. I keep thinking that some sign of the "golden years" should have popped up by now. Instead, growing old sure looks a lot more like ashen gray then luminous.
Worse, it ends in black. Death. That's the worst part of aging: dying.
On the other hand, for some people it's the best part. They're so miserable from sickness, loneliness, pain, suffering, poverty, and what not, death is a relief.
For everybody else – those who want to keep on living – it's an unwanted intrusion into the pleasant pursuit of existing. Which seems a heck of a lot better than the alternative.
Faced with the need to choose a category for this post, I ended up with "Humor." That's how I'd like to be able to look upon death: as a joke.
The Grim Reaper is too tenacious to be pushed away. But by laughing at the bastard at least I'd get some satisfaction from not taking the S.O.B. seriously.
Some years back an acquaintance told me a story about how her husband died. He had a brain tumor. OK, bad news.
But the good news – no, the great news – was that the tumor was in a part of the brain that controlled his understanding of death. So he was being killed by a disease that took away his ability to know he was dying.
Dear Tao, give me that brain tumor when it's my time to go.
The woman said they'd go to the doctor and he'd be told a dismal prognosis, that he didn't have much longer to live, and it wouldn't faze him a bit. They'd leave, walk down the sidewalk, and he'd say "Let's get an ice cream cone."
His health was good until it wasn't. Then, bingo, he was dead, not knowing he was dying.
People tell me all the time, "I'm not afraid of death." I invariably reply, "Well, I damn well am." Geez, I couldn't even finish reading Michael Kinsley's terrific The New Yorker article, "Mine is longer than yours," when he started rattling off statistics about baby boomer longevity.
I got to that part just before going to bed. Didn't want to have death nightmares. So I saved it for the cheerier light of day.
In 2004, the most recent year for which there are final figures, life expectancy at birth in the United States was 77.8 years. That's 75.2 years for males and 80.4 years for females. But if you've made it to sixty your life expectancy is 82.5 years: 80.8 for men and eighty-four for women. (In Katha Pollitt's recent book of essays, "Learning to Drive," there is a vicious one called "After the Men Are Dead.")
Well, unless something untoward happens in the next few months, I'll make it to sixty. Kinsley's "But" sounds like it's supposed to be a preface to cheerier news. But come on: 80.8 years is just twenty-one more birthdays for me.
Laurel and I have been married for eighteen years, and it seems like we just got married a little while ago. Time flies faster when you're getting closer and closer to death (a cosmic joke that's becoming increasingly unfunny).
Here's another factoid from the article. When can you expect, on average, one person in your family or social circle to die every year?
With some heroic assumptions, we can come up with an age when death starts to be in-your-face. We will merge all sexual and racial categories into a single composite American. We will assume that there are a hundred people your age who are close enough to be invited to your funeral. Your funeral chapel won't fit a hundred people? No problem.
On average, half of them will be too busy decomposing to attend. As Max Beerbohm noted in his novel "Zuleika Dobson," "Death cancels all engagements." And why a hundred? Because it's easy, and also because it's two-thirds of "Dunbar's number," of a hundred and fifty, which is supposedly the most relationships that any one set of human neurons can handle. We're crudely assuming that two-thirds of those are about your age.
Anyway, the answer is sixty-three. If a hundred Americans start the voyage of life together, on average one of them will have died by the time the group turns sixteen. At forty, their lives are half over: further life expectancy at age forty is 39.9. And at age sixty-three the group starts losing an average of one person every year. Then it accelerates. By age seventy-five, sixty-seven of the original hundred are left. By age one hundred, three remain.
Me, me, me! It'll be me, one of the three!
That's the first thing I thought when I read this. The second thing was, Everybody my age feels the same way.
So, we'll see. It's a lot like "Survivor," one of my favorite TV shows. (For obvious reasons, I love its name.) Everybody schemes to make it to the final three, but most get thrown off the island before the finale.
Only difference is, in the game of life we all end up losing. Unless we can forget about the competition.
The last boomer competition is not just about how long you live. It is also about how you die. This one is a "Mine is shorter than yours": you want a death that is painless and quick. Even here there are choices. What is "quick"?
You might prefer something instantaneous, like walking down Fifth Avenue and being hit by a flower pot that falls off an upper-story windowsill. Or, if you're the orderly type, you might prefer a brisk but not sudden slide into oblivion. Take a couple of months, pain-free but weakening in some vague nineteenth-century way. You can use the time to make your farewells, plan your funeral, cut people out of your will, finish that fat nineteenth-century novel that you've been lugging around since the twentieth century, and generally tidy up.
Me, I'd prefer to not know death is coming at all. A flower pot could still make a sound just before it hits me. Sleeping and not waking up while still in perfect health: ideal.
But not now. Sometime after 100. Two of you can join me.
My mother's brain cancer robbed her of the ability to understand that she was dying, but she knew it wasn't good. Fortunately, I was able to distract her with peach cake and whipped cream. And she was a genius, before.
Posted by: molly | April 24, 2008 at 06:09 PM