The act of getting old really has two parts to it. During the second half of anyone’s life, there is the usual noticeable decline that can be severely pronounced in some people. I heard many years ago that the secret of longevity is to pick good parents.
In my own case, both of my parents lived into their very early nineties. Unfortunately, my mother had been gradually losing her mind to dementia since she was about 70-72. I am not exactly certain when that started but I am sure that to the observant, and I don’t mean my father or me but to her friends, the signs were definitely there. She had stopped reading her romance novels which had become her favorite pastime. Along with smaller incidents of memory loss, she also started forgetting her way home from a department store on Queens Boulevard just two miles from home.
My father’s decline was much more gradual and it centered more on his body than his mind. While not having the memory of a young man, I was amazed at how, at the age of 90, he was able to recite verbatim definitions from his medical books at NYU. His memory was still sharp and precise.
My father had a much harder time letting go, which is the other side of the getting old coin. I felt his pain, as we had to explain to him why he needed to move from the only house he had ever lived in. I could see the sadness in his face when he said that if he did his life would be over. He proceeded to break his hip, not once but twice. Six months after we virtually kidnapped him to a new facility for the elderly at St. John’s Hospital, he died of pneumonia.
My mother was a different story. Her will never saw it coming. She lost her thinking, emotions, and fears in a slow gradual 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. It is the only way to ensure 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. That seemed so real to me. The fact that he was one of the good guys made a deep impression on me. Letting go is the only way to control our instinct to hang on to the things that give us comfort and protection on earth. 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 pure…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, a nightcap in the late afternoon and perhaps Playboy Magazine, for the articles of course. 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 are much more difficult when nature is already doing a good job of it. What’s wrong with 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 really 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. Speaking of sex, the word orgasm literally means little death or what the French call la petite mort. In one of his poems, Percy Shelly associates orgasm with death when he writes about the death which lovers love.
It is that fear of the final self-release from the world that has prompted me to take better care of myself. 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 is really a euphemism for dying.
As Jesus said, we all have to die to sin…to the attachments of the earth that will distract us from the promise of salvation and eternal happiness. Life is filled with all of these little deaths. That is one of the saddest facts of my life. 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. Loss of personal contact is just one of those little deaths that fills our lives almost on a daily basis.
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 and the memory. Little deaths follow us in into middle age. We all have to die to our youth. The sad truth of the matter is that we have to die to or put away the things of a child as St. Paul urged in his Letter to the Corinthians (13:11). These words of wisdom were offered to my freshman class at Holy Cross during orientation in 1961.
That 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. To people who have led a life of self-denial with hundreds of tiny orgasms of the will, this letting go should be relatively easy. That is one of the most brilliant and wise aspects of my Catholic faith. That is one discipline I wish I had more actively sought.
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 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 will 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 for. These little deaths get us ready for the final letting go of life as the main character in the seventies black comedy, All That Jazz, laments near the end of his life and the movie, Good Bye My Life Goodbye. The good news is that the end of our earthly lives is hopefully just the beginning of something far better and much more exciting.