I’ve been thinking a lot lately about aging and death. Partly because I’ve got a character right now that needs to die and I’m not sure how. I don’t know. If I can’t figure out a decent way to kill him off, maybe he’ll live. The point is such problems set the mind in a certain direction.
The character I’m thinking about is sort of old, but it’s a period piece and he’s not as old as folk get today. That brings to mind another question. How old is old? When does old start? It’s not a state of mind, as people – typically ones getting older but still young – like to say. Once the aches and pains kick in on a daily basis, or a major organ requires meds, it’s dumb to decide you’re as young as you feel.
Age is like beauty – in the eyes of the beholder. I remember when I was in my mid forties, still looking really good, feeling strong. I spent the day with my niece who was then about seven. I was taking her to the ballet for the Nutcracker that night. She asked if she could do my hair for the evening. Alright, says I, game for whatever amused her.
Twenty minutes later I had all my hair pulled up tight to the top of my head and then fashioned into a knot. My niece said: There, Mary! Now you look like a movie star! You’ll look so great tonight!
It was, of course, a disaster. All I needed was a bone stuck through the top of my head to look like Bam-Bam Flintstone. I told Anna: No, no, no, no, no. I look old this way. Anna’s little face went quizzical. But, Mary! You are old!
So let’s take niece seven-year-old Anna’s assessment and make 45 the beginning of old. The next question is: When is old too old? That’s something my pragmatic, 92-year-old mother knows well. Whenever a health or environmental difficulty arrives on her doorstep, she says: Well, that’s what I get for living too long.
Which gives me pause.
When I was a kid, we were taught to pray for what the nuns called “a good death”. Even then, I couldn’t imagine what a good death was. Now, I think I know. It’s a death that comes before you’re too old or in chronic pain or dependent in a way you don’t like or when everyone else important to you has gone on before.
So I’ve decided to avoid the issue.
I have this age in mind, which, if I manage to achieve it, will signal the year I stop taking my meds. Every week, I’m going to buy a few cartons of cigarettes, two bottles of bourbon, a case of wine, and two pounds of butter. Every day, I’ll eat red meat and drink my coffee with heavy cream. My plan is to go the old fashioned way. One great noisy heart attack or swift silent massive stroke.
The age I’ve chosen is the same one Issac Bashevis Singer began to experience the first signs of dementia. He said, famously, that when he got up in the morning and could not remember the names of his characters from a work in progress his heart broke. It was the final blow. I can imagine what he meant.
My husband is a little offended by all this. He thinks I should stay alive as long as he breathes too. But he wants to live to be 110. As his mother is now 98 with a heart as strong as a lion’s, he stands a good chance. I’m reminded of Conrad when I envision 110: The horror, the horror.
I told my husband recently my definition of a good death was to die in one’s sleep. He scoffed at me. Nobody dies in their sleep, says he. It’s too big, too grand an event. Surely the mind comes alert and takes note of the occasion. No, they don’t die in their sleep, they die in the other guy’s sleep. The one that’s snoring next to.
He’s got a point. I guess I’m back to cigarettes, bourbon, and butter. There are worse ways to go. And the best part is, no matter when it is, even if it comes up and takes me by surprise tomorrow, no one will say: Oh, she died so young!