As she lay dying, Gertrude Stein was asked, "Is there an answer to death?" She replied, "What was the question?"
Until I passed age 80 a while ago and acquired an assortment of deteriorating parts, I had never thought of an end to a busy life as either question or answer. Oh, I had made the customary preparations. Persuaded by skilled salespersons, I had bought "life insurance" (lovely euphemism) and cemetery plots "pre-need." But I could not imagine, let alone consider, my own actual demise. Death was something that happened to other older people, not to me.
Now my wife and I have moved into a retirement home where the average age is about 84. We have made delightful new friends -- and lost them almost immediately. We are surrounded by death. We have attended so many last rites in recent months that the funeral parlor has become like a second home. With each ceremony, one is more inclined to picture oneself in the coffin, covered first with eulogy and then with dirt.
Now I think of the remark attributed to Satchel Paige, the old Negro League baseball player: "Ain't nobody goin' outa this world alive." To dwell on the inevitability of death is morbid, but to ignore it is foolish.
I pay attention these days to the impermanence of things I have always considered timeless: holding my wife's hand as we watch a favorite television program; birds chirping and darting past our open window; crickets; a distant police or fire siren reminding of someone else's problem; the laughter and chatter of children at play.
I become aware that what I have taken for granted can be taken away -- and the value of these things increases.
In the will I had drawn and revised and the estate evaluation, how do I set a value on a loving spouse and partner who has been sharing my joys and sorrows for 60 years; on children, grandchildren, co-workers, colleagues and friends who have so enriched our lives?
Approaching the last chapter clarifies the meaning of all that has gone before. You realize that many of the crises in the earlier chapters were not as vitally important as they seemed at the time. I regret that I never told my grandparents of my gratitude to them for choosing to risk emigrating to a strange land instead of staying where I might have been born. I regret -- as months and days dwindle down -- some of the time squandered on livelihood and news programs -- time which could better have been used for living and listening to music. I regret all the years of insensitively when I was too busy to see the wonderful world around me.
With failing eyesight, my gaze lingers on the faces of friends and family members, as if to fix them in an album of treasured memories, on familiar flowers and scenes, on growing trees and children.
With slowing pace, I make an effort to keep up with striding companions. With one-third of heart function, along with the weariness comes awareness. The embers seem to burn brighter when the fire is going out. As the room grows darker, it seems briefly to get warmer. I begin to understand how the bedridden Marcel Proust could write pages about the glint of a spoon in a glass of tea.
My wife and I appreciate our good fortune to live in a continuing-care community, with friends of comparable age and condition. It's comforting to know that we will not have to face the sunset of the golden years in loneliness and isolation, as do so many less fortunate older citizens, and that we will not burden our children.
We share the hope expressed by the writer Rabindranath Tagore: "Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers but to be fearless in facing them. . . . Let me not look for allies in life's battlefield but to my own strength. . . . Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saving but hope for the patience to win my freedom. . . . " We agree with Edgar Allan Poe that "The boundaries which divide Life and Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?"
My affairs are in reasonable order. But be patient, dear heirs and assignees, I am not ready to go. With the help of my internist, otolaryngologist, cardiologist, ophthalmologist, urologist, dentist and surgeons, and a cabinet full of medications, I intend to hang on for dear life. I will not be pried loose for even a moment from a single one of the little pleasures I cherish -- and I've discovered that there are, happily, so many of them. These are things seen more clearly in fading light.
Jack L. Levin is a Baltimore business man.