A few years back my younger sister sent me a birthday card with a picture of a dog on the front, bearing the message, “In dog years you’d be dead.”
My sister atoned for this cruelty seven years ago when she saved my life as the donor for my bone marrow transplant. She was the only one of my four siblings who matched up perfectly, thus allowing me to get in touch with my feminine side and live to tell the tale.
That experience was “the nearest run thing” to borrow the Duke of Wellington’s description of his victory at Waterloo. So I take it in stride when I run into an old acquaintance that has not seen me in a very long time. “You look great,” they say although their visage indicates they are thinking, “You’re not dead?”
“The report of my death was an exaggeration,” said Mark Twain.
I find myself thinking, more and more, about my sister’s birthday card, dog years and such, as I come up on my 60th birthday this month, one by all rights I should not be celebrating if that is the right word. Thankful as I am to be alive, facing the big 6-0 certainly forces one to embrace the inevitability of mortality, not just as a hypothetical case but as a distinct possibility in the not too distant future. I seem to be paying more attention to the obituary pages, noting the ages of the many deceased. One person died at age 83, a long and happy life. Another passed away at 57, a bit young don’t you think? Death at 70? A close call that.
My older son and I were born on the same June date which has allowed me to downplay the passing years, in my own mind and within my family, by shifting the focus of the birthday celebrations on him. I am not sure that dodge is working this time, at least for me. Let’s face it: the coming of the seventh decade of one’s life is a milestone in our culture, notwithstanding the lengthening of our statistical lives. Even for those of us who believe that death is not the final end, the fact that we are closing the distance on this eventuality gives pause.
“It’s not that I’m afraid to die,” said Woody Allen. “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Robert J. Samuelson, an indispensable journalist and writer on economics, and another insightful Cassandra of our coming economic meltdown, says that in 1940, life expectancy at birth was 61.4 years for men. By 2008, the figure was 75.4. The comparable numbers for women are 65.7 and 80 years. Setting aside the consequences for the Social Security program, this is a remarkable reprieve for human beings in our society. Even if I discount the age differential by half (given my medical history), I might have close to a decade to…well, what?
Sigmund Freud, who feared “the terrors of eternal nothingness” and suffered from what he called Todesangst (dread of death), believed that “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness” for those who were up to it. “Love and work…work and love, that’s all there is.” However, he saw this as merely consolation amidst the desolation of the human condition.
The adage Laborare et orare, to work and to pray, is usually sourced to Saint Benedict whose monastic Rule mandated both activities for monks who joined his communities of faith. Unlike Freud, Benedict saw work, along with prayer, as the means of expressing love, not just for man or woman, but for the God who is love and the ultimate object of human longing. Moreover, work is not a penance or mere drudgery, but another form of love’s expression in both human and divine terms.
Whatever time we have allotted to us is a gift, an opportunity not to be missed. Time is a treasure. Somebody said that. It might take us six or more decades to figure this out, but one must make allowances for old dogs.
G. Tracy Mehan, III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.
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