I had two conversations recently with two different people, about loved ones dying. One has a relative in her nineties, who is experiencing the kind of breakdowns in health that are expected of a person in her nineties. So she is not really, specifically “dying” at the moment – it is just that “dying” is the general direction she is going in. The other person is in his forties, and is dying now, of a specific disease, and long before his time. It seems slightly upside down, doesn’t it?
I indulged in a moment of fantasy. I asked myself whether, if I were given the power in my mid-nineties, in failing health and mind, to die immediately, in exchange for the restoration of health to a young person with a whole life before him, would I do it?
As we age some of us think differently about time, quality of life, and what a full life span is. In the King James version of the Bible, Psalm 90 refers to “threescore and ten,” or seventy, as the expected lifespan. But thanks to advanced medicine and technology, threescore and ten is just about average these days. Ninety is the new seventy. Which makes seventy the new fifty and fifty the new thirty. (Does it follow then that thirty-somethings are like teens?)
And as the expected lifespan has grown, we have seen retirement change too, from rocking chair to golf course to skydiving, in as short a time. Or retirement is deferred and people keep on working well into their eighth decades. When life was once considered over, it is now considered still in progress.
So, I doubled down on my fantasy question with a series of other questions: how “failing in health” was I in this scenario? Was I in constant pain, or just slowing down? Could I still work? Enjoy food? Was I just a little forgetful or quite out of my head? And, was the young person I was restoring to health someone I knew and loved, or just someone? If I could still enjoy a hotdog, and was just forgetful, I would be inclined to want to stay around, especially if the person I was “saving” was a stranger. So then I turned the screws on the proposition: what if it were someone I knew and loved? Well, all right, I would give up my life for one of my children, but I would have done that when I was young, as well.
I am far from ninety, but I am past threescore and ten, and in the last several years, I must admit, I have been feeling an intermittent sense of been-there-done-that about a lot of things. When I listen to the news, some days, I feel as though I have heard it all before. That there is nothing new under the sun. When people say “there’s never been a winter like this,” I remember 1977. The new diet everyone is talking about? I was on it twenty years ago. I don’t buy seventies retro fashion because I wore it the first time around. New recipes are old recipes with new wrinkles. New remedies are old remedies disguised. I am irritated at the culture of Facebook, and regretful that I will probably never learn to swim. And I don’t believe in miracles, because most miracles are lucky breaks, and once you outlive one, you know the truth. So, if I am so jaded, why not say enough is enough?
Because I am still greedy for life. I must have forgotten for a moment, but to love life is to value each breath, whether the air is fresh or stale. Every once in a while it takes a reminder, like the upside-down case of someone dying young.