Saturday, August 30, 2008

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

I recently read a novel written by Georgia author Terry Kay, entitled To Dance With The White Dog. It was a fascinating read for me on several levels--on the very surface because it was set in the lovely rural landscape of northeast Georgia of which I am so fond. But deeper than that, it was a lovely story which was at once moving, charming, simple, and universally relevant. I think the primary reason this story has stuck with me is that it spoke heavily to perhaps my deepest fear... aging.

I do not really fear my own death. In fact, I try to live in such a way that every moment becomes vital and sacred--so that if any given beat of my heart became the last one, then I could leave this world having lived a life that was not wasted, that was significant and lived to its fullest capacity. I need no reminder of my own mortality; I am well aware that life is immensely fragile, hanging from a silky strand of spider-thread. A life lived in fear of death is lived in futility, and I refuse to let my limited allotment of moments succumb to such fruitlessness.

What I do fear, however, is almost equally as inevitable as death--and that is growing older. Losing capacities I once had; the dulling of my senses; the slow degeneration of my physical being or, worse, of my mind; watching the world changing all around me and knowing that my time has come and gone; continuing to hold onto that fragile thread that suspends me in a state of vitality as it grows more and more ragged, as all around me I watch those threads snapping and my family and friends, one by one, falling into that which lies beyond life on earth. Being left alone here in the world, alone with the ghosts of my youth and my familiar world, which will have long since passed on. These are the thoughts that I cannot stand. These scenarios represent the reality I see in my elderly family members and acquaintances, who through the years have lost their mental faculties to an astonishing degree, who physically cannot get out and do the things that they once loved to do. These fears are called to the front of my mind when I imagine a collection of haggard old men sitting in rocking chairs on funeral home porches, being winnowed out through years and months until two, one, none remain.

As futile as it is to fear death, I am certain that it is equally as futile to fear aging--for unless death comes early, aging is just as inevitable a fact, just as unstoppable. Yet the knowledge that death could come at any moment is oddly comforting... whereas aging is a gradual process, striking constantly and unobtrusively, until one day you realize that you are not what you used to be. I cannot imagine being alive and yet being unable to do the things I do today--from going on a weekend mountain-hiking expedition, to driving my car two hours up the road, to having a conversation where I am fully cognizant of who I am, where I am, and with whom I am speaking. Someday I may not have those abilities, and yet my heart will still be pumping life through my rapidly degenerating body. Ça, c'est la vie? I wonder.

But for all my fretting, To Dance With The White Dog did not depress me. It reminded me of the fragility of life and challenged me to look at the world through the eyes of an elderly man who knows he is not long for this world, yet still fights to life deliberately until his last breath. And that is an encouraging thought. I guess we can only expect to make the most of what he have right at this moment. So right now I am young and I have an entire lifetime ahead of me, and I have all the strength and sharpness and freedom that I can ask for. So now is my time to make the most of those things. And then perhaps when I am much, much older, I will be content with what I still have remaining, not mournful of the things that have gradually slipped away. At any rate, it is worthless to worry about such things now--because my life could end tomorrow, and I will not want to have spent my last day on earth fretting over a day and age that would never come.

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