When my mother-in-law turned 88, we followed Japanese tradition and had a special birthday celebration at a country club with all of the extended family. She had made sure we were aware the 88th was special in Japanese tradition, and that we knew hers was approaching. It has something to do with the double characters for “88” resembling the single character for “rice.” Pretty flimsy reason, but I guess any would do.
Eighty-eight deserves to be special, whatever the reason. At 75, 80, we may have a few more productive years left, knitting one more sweater, stitching one more quilt, nailing together one more birdhouse, but at 88, we are on the brink of dotage—maybe over the brink. We have lived longer than most of our friends, and to want more would be greedy. The remaining years are more likely to be difficult than a pleasure. We are unlikely to accomplish anything else and can only expect to burden our family from here on out. Let’s whoop it up, then stop celebrating our birthdays. We have 87 others to remember. Isn’t that enough?
We put too much importance on a person’s official lifespan, anyway, without accounting for the quality. Before what I am writing now is even posted, there could be another horrific Middle East explosion. “Fifty-three killed,” will be the headline. But the 200 others, the blinded who will never see another sunrise, the maimed and brain-damaged who will never leave their bed, the children who will never play in a schoolyard again, they will be ignored. They are still alive . . . technically.
When I was deeply involved in lifeguarding, I was well aware that many near-drownings that were praised as successful rescues left the victim permanently brain-damaged, often badly so.
My father lived to 93, but the last five years were only waiting, not living. We need a way to stop counting the years till death, and use an earlier time to calculate lifespan, perhaps calling it something different, like “functional lifespan.” Using the age of 88 is one way, but it is too arbitrary. Perhaps when a person spends less than two hours out of bed each day could be a stopping point. Or when they start wearing diapers (sorry, I didn’t know you have been wearing them for years). Or when they have not left their house for more than two weeks straight. Surely we can find something.
Initially, it could cause some confusion:
“My father lived to 93.”
“Wow. What did he die of?”
“Oh, he is still alive, but no longer what you would call living. No, no, don’t apologize. We understand.”
I kid you not.