Following the West’s penchant for duality, life can easily be divided into two parts. The first part is being born, maturing, getting settled in a profession and getting married and raising a family. During the second half of anyone’s life there is the usual noticeable decline that can be severely pronounced in some people.
I learned many years ago that the secret of longevity is to pick good parents. In my own case as I wade more deeply into my seventies I become even more confident as both of my parents lived into their very early nineties. Unfortunately my mother suffered the gradual loss of her mind to dementia when she was in her early seventies. So I do have some pause for concern.
The exact date of her decline was very difficult to pinpoint. I am certain that to the observant, and I am excluding both my father, and me…but to her friends the signs were definitely there. She had stopped reading her romance novels, which had become her favorite pastime. She started forgetting her way home from a department store on Queens Boulevard that was two miles from home and other smaller incidents of memory loss.
My father’s decline was much later in his life, and it focused more on his body than his mind. Sure he did not have the current memory he did when he was a young man but I was amazed at the time when he must have been 90 that he recited text-book definitions verbatim from his medical books at NYU. So I am convinced that his memory was still sharp and precise.
My father had a much harder time in letting go of those very reminders of our active lives than my mother did. But for her that was not something she really had to decide. This is the other side of the getting old coin. I felt my dad’s pain when we had to explain to him why he needed to move from the only house he and my mother had ever lived in. I could see the sadness in his face when he said that if he did his life would be over. This is the end were his exact words.
In a matter of just over a year, it was. He proceeded to break his hip, not once but twice. Six months after my aunt and uncle virtually kidnapped him to a new facility for the elderly at St. John’s Skilled Nursing in St. Louis, where he would die of pneumonia six months later.
My mother was a different story. Her will never saw it coming.
She lost her thinking, emotions, fears, mobility and the ability to feed and care for herself, in a very deliberate but slow process that required nothing of her but to act naturally. Nature did the rest.
I dread either course. To me letting go is the defining principle that is necessary for learning how to accept the inevitable. Letting go is the only way to control our willfulness to hang on to the things that give us comfort and protection on earth. It is the only way to insure a happy death.
As I attend more and more funerals and wakes, I have learned about how others have faced something that I have dreaded since I saw a TV cowboy hero succumb to bullet wounds in a ditch when I was six years old. His theatrical death seemed so real to me! And the fact that he was one of the good guys made a deep impression on me because subliminally I believed the good lived forever.
In some cases these last things could have been our vices and addictions that have kept us away from God. As St. Augustine petitioned as a young man, Lord, make me chaste…just not now. That prayer is probably the most common prayer of the vast majority of people, who do not like to give up even their little vices, such as a candy bar before bed, or maybe a Nightcap in the late afternoon. This thought underscores the importance of Lent, in which Christians are supposed to mortify the flesh and desires so as prepare for their final act of giving up and letting go.
But mortifications of the flesh is much more difficult when nature is already doing a solid job of it. What’s wrong with enjoying a little pleasure of food or even sex–married sex of course— when your body hurts all the time and you have trouble sleeping? I don’t have an answer for that. I hope that the last thing I have to let go of is my regular massage. It has been the one thing that has made senescence tolerable.
Aging requires that we all go through a series of little deaths or what the French call la petite mort. Strangely enough, this concept has the same roots as the word, orgasm.
My fear of the final self-release from the world has prompted me to take better care of myself. I have been taking Yoga now for over two years. I try to eat healthy foods and I exercise at least twice a week. Since my massage therapist keeps telling me that she is giving me passive exercise–make that four times a week total.
The term letting go then is really to die to the pleasures of our worldly existence. As Jesus said we have to die to sin…to the attachments of the earth that will distract us from the promise of salvation and eternal happiness.
I often wonder what happened to the people who I knew for just a few bleeps on the monitor of life, and then disappeared from me for the rest of my life. My loss of contact was just one of those little deaths that fills our lives almost on a daily basis. This thought is far worse than St. Paul’s directive in his First Corinthians (13:11) to put away to things of a child and put on the New Man. One of the English professors at Holy Cross said these same words to my freshman class during orientation in 1961. Nostalgia for our youth, the games of childhood and the learning, living and loving experiences we all have is more a recognition of those many little deaths or orgasms of the spirit…of the memory. Little deaths follow us in into middle age. We all have to die to our youth.
What the good professor did not warn us of and it was not really in his purview, was that during old age our new man would lose many of the abilities and faculties that animated his adult maturity.
This is so hard for so many–especially men. We all go through some form of mid-life crisis. I know I did. Now I guess I am having an end of life crisis. My life has gone bye so fast as if I was on a Concorde jet speeding across the pages of my personal history at warp speed. When I was a child, it was as if I were on a slow boat that could not make it out of the harbor. As the protagonist in the 1971 film, All That Jazz laments near the end of his life, actor Ben Vereen energetically sings Good Bye My Life Goodbye.
To people who have led a life of self-denial with hundreds of tiny orgasms of the will, letting go should be relatively easy. This is one of the most brilliant and wise aspects of my Catholic faith. One that I wish I had followed a lot more closely. By adopting a total acceptance of all of these little deaths, I think it will help me accept the larger version of it when I do take my last breath. I think now is the time to get my will in as good a shape as my body.
Then perhaps I may be able to experience what I have heard on at least three occasions from friends or spouses of friends that there was talk of a beatific presence during the dying person’s last moment. That in itself will be well worth letting go.