Read Old Man Scanlon

Immortality by Proxy

19 February 2015

Decades ago, so desperately did I desire to be immortal, I would fantasize about joining the undead. Endowed with the supernatural powers of the best-selling fictional vampire of that generation, plus his limitless time, I flattered myself that I’d be able come to terms with perpetual sunlessness and the tacky serial murders by exsanguination. It’s just as well that the temptation to opt for that lifestyle hasn’t presented itself; I’m no longer so sure I could handle it.

I’ve had plenty of time to protest my mortality. When at age six I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes doctors said that I could expect to live to forty, and had technology remained static they would indeed have been right. But even at such a tender age, with a child’s concept of forty being old as dirt, that did not satisfy me. Now that I’ve racked up a few more years and, one hopes, a glimmer of wisdom, I’ve ceased to pine for immortality. Reserving the right to whinge a little, I willingly submit to a truce with the constraints of a finite lifespan. I flaunt my new Medicare card and take perverse delight in achieving minor infirmities of age not automatically attributable to diabetes—arthritis, bursitis, frailties of my manly apparatus. Living this long is a gift, and I’m not being ironic.

Death has surrounded us this year, perhaps no more than it usually does, but it has seemed more noticeable and closer to home. In our family two uncles have died. Three dogs have died. Friends have died. People in the public eye have died; some have announced that they will soon die. A litany of loss, leaving voids large and small, some surprisingly personal. None of us is getting any younger, and time will refuse to reverse even if we ask nicely.

My own death is closer than my birth, by a lot, and my raw youth’s invulnerability well tattered. Recognizing vulnerability leads me, if not to sick self-centered obsession, to a prickly awareness that I will die. Of course I am afraid. I fear pain and helplessness and loss of the marvelous certainty that my life is a gift, so I mock and joke and write. For all my bloviating about death, my closest experience is only second-hand, and I’m in no hurry to make it first-hand. It’s all facile circle-of-life rodomontade; I’m whistling past the graveyard.

But circle of life is what we have. While our collective grandchildren live, the inevitability of our own destruction stings less. Cultivating, satisfying, and—especially—emulating their curiosity is the sovereign anodyne. Acts of curiosity defy death, neutralizing suspicions that our presence here is futile, part of a bitter cosmic joke. Cheryl reads Fireman Small to Tommy. As his neurons emerge from toddler chaos I hear them snapping into ordered symmetry, followed by the enthralled three-year-old’s peremptory “Again!” that Cheryl can’t even begin to resist. Jord changes clothes for his after-school job, and he patiently suffers my attempt to show him how to tie a four-in-hand knot, my muscle memory fleeing as soon as I try to do it step by step. I am privy to a touching moment of grace: Deb teaching LuLu how to knit. Time does not reverse, even for instants like these, but I feel it slow down while the memories crystallize.

I think it is well to let our descendants know what we owe them, to give them unbidden responsibility for something they can’t—for mere lack of experience—even grasp, to prime them with one of life’s mysteries. We are their forebears, yet they give us life. Those who indulge in deprecating the familiar to seek meaning farther afield court the danger of disappointment.