On Death and Taxes, Without the Taxes

1.  A New Yorker cartoon shows a man reading the obituaries in a newspaper.  He is thinking, “…younger than me…younger than me…older than me…”

2.  My aunt died last year at the age of 95.  She was one of my mother’s three sisters and out-lived them all.  This would have been a big surprise when they were younger.

3.  An old guy at my community center, obviously hard of hearing, greets everyone with a loud, “I’M 83 YEARS OLD!  CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?” (“Sure can.”) and waits for the expected praise.  If you are an even slightly attractive woman and a tad slow, he will grab you, roughly hug you, and expect you to be grateful.

Author Michael Kinsley in the April 7 issue of the New Yorker explains these observations in his somewhat tongue-in-cheek article, “Mine is Longer Than Yours.”  The double entendre is his.

Of all of life’s benefits, he tells us—money, good looks, etc.—longevity is the one that people feel free to brag about as if it were a competition.  For one reason, the losers are not around to be offended.

Longevity is the ultimate competition that trumps all others, the only competition that really matters.  Would you like to be someone gifted like John Lennon, important like Thomas Jefferson?  Rich like John D. Rockefeller?  Heck, no!  They’re dead. 

The contest is only relative to the present.  Someone may have lived to 95, and I may not make it to 80, but I won because I am alive now and enjoying this day.

Perhaps “competition” is too strong a word.  But I do remember once reading an old memo I had written years before to my boss with copies to several top executives and realizing I was the only one still alive.   Shocked, yes, but with a tinge of triumph.

Kinsley points out that in childhood, we think we will live forever, but then death becomes an intermittent reality as grandparents and parents die, and, at some point, death becomes a normal part of life—a faint dirge in the background that gradually gets louder.  That point, he says, roughly speaking, is when one person you know who is your age dies each year.  Juggle the statistics, make some assumptions, and that age works out to be 63.  After that, the death of friends becomes an in-your-face reality.  

By my count of our Lahian class pictures, there were 132 of us.  Statistically, only eighty-eight will make it to 75 and only four to 100.

How do you expect to die?  Would you like to go quickly, or with about six months warning to tidy up your affairs?  My choice would be to be hit by an Israeli hellfire missile fired from a hidden helicopter.  Terrorists who die that way never know they are dead.  They disappear in a pink mist before their brains can even register a flash or a bang, much less a twinge of fear or regret.   They reach to open a car door and are gone,  just like that.

The range of our experiences as we age are tremendous.   We are not shocked to see a seventy-one-year-old in a nursing home, nor are we shocked to see a seventy-one-year-old running for President.  The speed of aging is also variable.  A simple fall can age us instantly.  It is easy to imagine two friends at sixty who look and act the same.  Ten years later, one is living on disability while the other is running his own company, left his wife for a younger woman, and takes a month off each year to ski.  

At age 65, a mere thirty-six out of one thousand Americans are in a nursing home, says Kinsley.  This does not sound bad, except a nursing home is just the penultimate stop in a series of institutions that begins with “independent living,” and runs through “assisted living,” with possible detours through “home health care” and “rehab.”  Each stage begins a new phase of life, as surely as going away to college.

According to popular mythology, people who are failures in high school are often successful in mid-life.  At the onset of adulthood, life reshuffles the deck, and everyone gets a second chance.  The back row in high school often do get the last laugh.  But
—surprise! the deck is reshuffled again as we enter the last chapter, and the laughing is not over.

Ha, ha, ha!

Photos at Flickr.com/photos/MisterEarl


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
This entry was posted in Aging. Bookmark the permalink.

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