What is it?
Should I call an ambulance?
—No! No, not now! No, not tonight! I mean, eventually!
Boris, everybody dies.
from “Whatever Works” (Woody Allen)
When I was about seven I was flying around our apartment on Avenue C.
It was all about the cape. If it was attaining any horizontal auronautics then I was truly in flight.
Television was a new thing in our home and through that magic window I had seen how it worked when Superman took off—out of the phonebooth and up into the sky. ”Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane. . . ”
I was not one of those mythical kids with impaired critical thinking skills that supposedly jumped out a window thinking they could fly after seeing Superman do it. I suppose if I had managed to get anywhere close to the ceiling inside the apartment I may have tried some gliding around from a bench the next time we were in the park.
Superman had Kryptonite—and I had the Cast Iron Radiator. Somehow George Reeves never stepped on his cape—but I did—and flew headlong into the radiator; there was blood all over the place. In those ancient days of the 1950s on the Lower East Side of Manhattan the doctor actually came to the apartment, fixed me up, and I now have a scar on my forehead as a souvenir. That episode revealed to me some basic physical limitations and my career as Superman was tapered.
Jor-el, Superman’s biological father, died when the planet Krypton exploded.
Alexander, my father, at age 52, died when I was 15, when his heart seized up while he was sleeping.
— It’s unacceptable!
From at least that point on I always kept Death in my peripheral vision. I must have shared my apprehension because I recall my first girlfriend telling me—I was seventeen—that I was “too existential”.
Any arts—visual, literature, music—that had Melancholy on the ingredients list, I always found more satisfying.
I flew through the coming decades with no major physical injuries—the worst a badly twisted ankle—no breaks, no surgeries, no major illnesses—no more radiators.
Death, meanwhile was always circling, leaving scythe notches on the blackboard in my room — friends and acquaintances, family both close and distant, admired artists—so many people permanently disappearing from the surface of the planet.
While Death struck the flesh, its symbolic cousin Finality often painfully dispatched personal relationships—those mysterious webs of connection between us humans.
There was plenty of weeping, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over the years over each of these many endings, these varied deaths.
With each step along the arc towards our own demise, as we encounter Death in its many guises, our individual perspectives change. Every death becomes a reminder that there is an endgame in place. As survivors, each death leaves a mark a mark on us, a shift of the lens that we see the world through—affecting our thinking, our creativity, our way of living day to day. — Zena Kōan
To Everything There Is A Season (a brief digression)
The longest verified human lived 122 years and 164 days — and there a few centenarian-teenagers still living today.
One thesis suggests that aging is due to the existence of a generically predetermined life span for every organism — and thus humans can’t trespass much beyond a century, no matter the range of possible replaceable parts.
Genesis 6:3 seems to agree:
And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.
Psalm 90 is a bit more realistic:
The days of our years are threescore years and ten;
and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years,
yet is their strength labor and sorrow;
for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
The song says — we’re captured on a carouse of time — and it was recently that I concluded that I’ve got maybe another dozen or so chances to grab the brass ring.
Harold— Maude, please. Don’t die. I couldn’t bear it. Please, don’t die.
Maude—But, Harold, we begin to die as soon as we are born. What is so strange about death? It’s no surprise. It’s part of life. It’s change.
Harold—But why now?
Maude— I thought eighty was a good round number.
—from “Harold & Maude” (Hal Ashby)
Tripping on the tombstone
Two years ago I heard the starting gun fired. The race had begun—between a hare named Regeneration and a tortoise named Degeneration.
On 7 April 2017 (age 65+ with a brand new senior citizen 50% discount transit card) kryptonite showed up in the form of a badly taken step while using that card—getting off a bus. Achilles the Greek god has a tendon named after him. When we step badly and rupture that tendon, falling to the ground in blazing pain, we get a lesson in the mythology of our own indestructibility as revealed in body mechanics. It’s a bit like flying into a radiator.
You can skip-read as we go along — some of this might feel like a list of the continuing barrage of mechanical flaws that followed. This is the stuff of which conversations between my friends and myself often digress.
Who hasn’t seen the old folks chattering on about their ailments—sagas which are as plentiful to them as the comic book adventures of the Super and Spider and Bat men are for the young kids to discuss.
First there was the three months of stabilization boot (“Nancy”). Then many weeks with the cane (“Citizen”). When I developed plantar fascitis, with over-the-top pain, I went to crutches (“Dali Sticks”).
Next a blood clot, which involved MRIs and ultrasound and compression socks and pharmaceutical blood thinners.
The calf muscle on the injured leg atrophied from lack of use. A casual passerby wouldn’t notice but to me it was a terrifying distortion, a major dent that would dramatically drop the value in the Blue Book.
The transmission was replaced but the repairmen did not attemp to pretend that this was a new vehicle off the showroom floor.
There was wear and tear. It had a lot of potential miles left in it, but now cross-country trips would become risky. I got a prognosis of an 85% return to my normal mobility. What would Superman do with that percentage in reference to his ability to fly?!
”But our machines have now been running some seventy or eighty years, and we must expect that, worn as they are, here a pivot, there a wheel, now a pinion, next a spring, will be giving way; and however we may tinker them up for a while, all will at length surcease motion.” — Thomas Jefferson (aged 71) to John Adams (aged 78)
And so, after almost a year I could again enjoy a nice spin around Manhattan, albeit a bit slower and gentler and more cautious. During this phase I began reducing the event in my mind to an anomaly—and imagining the possibility of the crowd below once again someday yelling: ”Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird . . . ” Etc.
To help with my sense of wellbeing my creativity had survived the difficuties of 2017.
I managed to create one of my strongest digital visual works (for the Burning Man event)—Blind Leading the Blind (Question Rituals), and I self-published two books.
In both of my books Death played a major role. In the fictional “Death By Search Engine” it was disease — and in the non-fictional “Just Runaways”, murder was hiding in the epilogue.
“The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but little.” —Michel de Montaigne
The Downward Arc
Ah, but then the summer of 2018 jump-started with Meralgia Paresthetica (one learns many medical terms at each point of the Downward Arc)—a pinched nerve that caused thigh numbness and impossible-to-walk pain.
(This was less than two months before the planned return to Burning Man in the desert of Nevada, which I had struggled through the year previous year due to the tendon injury.) I threw everything available at the pain—doctors, alternative practitioners (full disclosure: I even bamboozled myself into spending money on CBD oil). Ultimately it was the anesthetic injections that resolved it, about 80%.
The Ice Pick migraine headaches came along and were added to the mix—this time a disorder with a horror-movie descriptive name.
Back pain flared up. The chart said Posterior disc space narrowing at L2-L3 and diffuse disc space narrowing at L3-L4, L4-L5, and L5-S1. As we go along on the aging roller-coaster we get to learn all kinds of body part names—even numbers!
I felt like my body had traveled a couple decades in a year. This vehicle that has burnt rubber on many a road without much thought was suddenly in need of constant attention. Less miles to the gallon of gas. More frequent oil changes recommended—plus, in addition to transmission fluid I was adding Indomethacin, Iboprophen, Xaralto, Percocet, Gabapentin and others. And it seemed best to let it run a bit before pulling out into the street.
I became very aware of the old age spots—also called solar lentigines (quite poetic!)—flourishing on my hands.
Similarly—the slowly encroaching thinning hair spot at the top of my head I’d swear wasn’t there last week.
Vision-loss had reached a new plateau when the reading glasses were not merely an aid, but a necessity. No amount of squinting could bring those little characters into focus when I was engaged in one of my very favorite activities.
Luckily my visual art is digital and the computer gods created zoom-ability— although my hunt & peck typing still seems to have room to get even worse.
Perhaps I’ll choose Presbycusis for its interesting Greek name as the disorder that would explain the so-far-manageable hearing loss that makes this old guy keep saying Wha? in any loud crowded room.
“She saw that with each attack of dizziness or fainting or confusion she became a little older, a little weaker, and a little more tired; her step became more hesitant, her memory less trustworthy, her handwriting less legible, and her interest in life less keen. She knew that for 10 years or more, she had been moving step by step towards the grave.” — a wise old lady” quoted by Walter Alvarez, Chicago clinician
The End Is Not In Sight
The most recent assault was my first bout with debilitating pneumonia. The literature says it is particularly dangerous for old people.
I dreaded the X-ray results. My sister had bronchitis and her X-rays revealed a lung cancer that ultimately killed her.
I added Azithromicin and Flovent to the list of fluids to help keep the engine running and it appears that I managed to ward off the danger.
When exactly does one cross the line from getting old to being old? I guess that’s what this sense of dying is about. It’s about real fragility. About taking a honest look at the map and seeing that this train does have a destination (and it ain’t bound for glory). If you prefer a nautical analogy, there’s a harbor on the horizon awaiting my arrival.
Freddy said —”What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
If he wasn’t dead I would gladly debate that with the mustachioed one.
“When a man grows old his bones become dry and brittle like straw, his flesh sags and there is much air within his thorax, and pains within his stomach; there is an uncomfortable feeling within his heart, the nape of his neck and the top of his shoulders are contracted, his body burns with fever, his bones are stripped and laid bare of flesh, and his eyes bulge and sag. When then the pulse of the liver can be seen but the eye can no longer recognize a seam, death will strike. The limit of a man’s life can be perceived when a man can no longer overcome his diseases; then his time of death has arrived.” — Chi Po (3,500 years ago)
Don’t get me wrong. I harken to Dylan Thomas and I will not go gently into that good night. And with the other Dylan, Bob, I agree that he not busy being born
is busy dying.
So here I am, boxing gloves on, not sure what round this is, or who the next opponent will be, but doing a dance Ali would approve.
And don’t think that I don’t already have an enormous gratitude list.
Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, to pointless to mention.
I’ve been very lucky. I am very lucky. I have love, I have a few good friends, I have art. I still have Awe.
I wish I had a better shoulder and I wish the wheel of humanity wasn’t so seriously untrue. It is a truly dizzying experience to have gotten that rarest of opportunities: to participate in this Garden Of Earthy Delights, so perfecty captured by Hieronymus Bosch.
“And don’t kid yourself. Because its by no means up to your own human ingenuity. A bigger part of your existence is luck, than you’d like to admit. Christ, you know the odds of your fathers one sperm from the billions, finding the single egg that made you. Don’t think about it, you’ll have a panic attack.” — Whatever Works (Woody Allen)
This vehicle is still on the road most of the time. (Check out Jaques Tati’s vehicle in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday for an analogy of its mechanical stability.)
The dent on the hood from encountering metal, when it was relatively new and thought it was Supercar, has been joined by many other nicks and blemishes. The upholstery is wrinkled and the color of the roof has faded down to white from decades of sun and rain. Yet I still push it pedal-to-the metal regularly, like when I drive towards the desert in Nevada.
But I do listen more carefully for any new sounds it might make and have a mechanic check it out.
I’m an optimistic pessimist who knows that’s all you can do—drive it till the wheels fall off.
“When my time comes, I will seek hope in the knowledge that insofar as possible I will not be allowed to suffer or be subjected to needless attempts to maintain life; I will seek it in the certainty that I will not be abandoned to die alone; I am seeking it now, in the way I try to live my life, so that those who value what I am will have profited by my time on earth and be left with comforting recollections of what we have meant to one another.” — Sherwin B. Nuland, “How We Die” *
Oh don’t talk that way — the chorus sings — you still have a long way to go!
70 is the new 40 they say, oblivious of Schubert, Chopin, Mozart, et al.
You shouldn’t look at things as running down, think of them as mere bumps along the highway.
I let them go on, knowing that it makes them feel better saying that.
Meanwhile I’m here—dying.
No, not now.
© AleXander Hirka 2019. All Rights Reserved.
* A book I would recommend to any of my friends who might be considering death as an eventual option. Also to my friends who read books in the horror genre.