Thoughts on Aging and Death

Nov. 6, 2017

A friend and reader reminded me of a correction in the title of last week’s blog. It should read, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” It does change what follows a bit and it seems important to get the Bible quote right. Now for some thoughts on Aging and Death.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day.

Dylan Thomas, a Welch poet who wrote those lines, lived in NYC in the 1950s. My first wife and I also lived in New York in the 1950s. Thomas drank too much alcohol at the White Horse Tavern, also near our apartment, and died in his 38th year.

My youthful ambition was to be a great poet like Dylan Thomas. I am in my 91st year on this planet and can’t match him in great lines like the above or, fortunately, in alcohol consumption.

I remember listening to Dylan Thomas dramatically read this classic at the 91ST Y….

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

I dearly wish I could have written that.

And then there are the American writers, Thoreau and Dickenson.

Thoreau’s quip that “most men live lives of quiet desperation” is as true of my 20th and 21st centuries as it was in his 19th. An aunt asked whether he had made his peace with God before dying of tuberculosis at 44. (Many adults died young in the 19th century.) Henry’s reply is classic, “I wasn’t aware we had ever quarreled.”

Speaking of dying—and I am—I admit to a tiny bit of envy of Emily Dickinson’s confident faith when she penned this classic.

I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.

I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.

Emily lived as a recluse and died in 1884 at 55. Like most people in the 19th century, Emily saw many deaths, young and old. She never turned to gloom as one of her most famous poems shows…

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops – at all –

Though very religious, Emily never went to church after her teens. I too haven’t been to church after my teens and never flirted with gloom. But I have rebelled against Emily’s faith in an after-life. I do envy her confident faith but therein lay a grave question! Do Muslims share heaven or hell with Christians? How about Hindus? Or Buddhists? Or for that matter all “faiths?”

To add to the problem, the exclusive-faith idea has led to an awful lot of heretic burning in past ages.  I choose to distance myself from that gory history and no longer believe in an after-life.

I don’t choose to distance myself from a lighter handling of death. Like Peggy Lee’s talking-song, Is That All There Is?

When I was twelve years old,
My father took me to a circus, the greatest show on earth
There were clowns and elephants and dancing bears
And a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads
And when it was all over
I felt something was missing
I don’t know what.
So I said to myself
Is that all there is to a circus?

Is that all there is
If that’s all there is, my friends
Let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is.

(Two more verses about a fire her father takes her to, and her disappointment after a first love affair.)

I know what you must be saying to yourselves
“I that’s that way she feels about it
Why doesn’t she just end it all.”
Oh no, not me
I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment
Cause I know just as well as I’m standing her talking to you
When that final moment comes and I’m breathing my last breath
I’ll be saying to myself

Is that all there is
Is that all there is
If that’s all there is, my friends
Let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is.

Dancing is fine. The truth is I never cared that much for boozy parties or balls. I like Peggy Lee and most of her song sentiments but I don’t much like that chorus. Religious people would not like it either. (Face it, people who believe in heaven or hell don’t seem that eager to experience them soon or indeed with the last breath!)

More thoughts?

Add to the above frustration with my aging, feeble, and hopelessly inefficient body often confined to a wheelchair for hours on end. Hunting and picking letters to polish weekly blogs, paying bills, answering emails, or filling the occasional order. Often I curse my faulty fingers and helpless body and want to cry like the baby I‘m fast becoming!

At nearly the same time I catch myself and humbly thank my extended family, the VA, Senior Helpers, and close neighbors and friends for their considerate , compassionate, and welcome help. I also thank my lucky stars that, so far at least, I have been spared the ugly pains of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or any other crippling disease. My mind is fine, but my body is weak.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President, Hawkhill

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