For most old people being in constant pain is the predominant condition of getting old. It dominates the aging process whether it is arthritis, gout, dementia or some other chronic condition. If there is one growing pain that I dislike the most, it is the fact that I am cold much of the time. That’s why winter has become extremely oppressive as I age. There is nothing worse than a chilling wind whistling through your bones. The word cold need only lose its “c” to stand for the continuous state of advancing age.
As the ears, eyes, legs, balance, speed, energy, lungs and sexual prowess start to falter or perform less well than expected–you can feel the soul depart that dying organ or limb and regroup in remaining body parts. Many of these premature deaths seem to gradually recede more with a sigh and a whimper than a sudden crash.
According to author Colum McCann’s book, Dancer, each day one must take an inventory of his eyes, depth perception, energy levels, lung capacity, heart rate, blood pressure, memory function, circulation and so on because some day these vital organs and their functions will wind up in what he called the Graveyard of the Body.
This is not the idea that the term golden age is supposed to convey. On a psychological level, many elderly people find themselves alienated from their families and even society itself. It is no wonder the suicide rate accelerates for older people. Government control of health care and threatening thoughts of death panels or at least stuffy bureaucrats making life and death decision for us instead of our doctors and family is a terrifying thought.
I have also found that this time in my life is important for the opportunity for prayerful reflection, or what I call in the subtitle, The Coming of Age. It is the time for me to think about not only where my life is going but where it has been as I go down the back nine as the late baseball announcer, Jack Buck used to joke. No wonder I never liked golf.
This time is also associated with different kinds of pain—the emotional pains of regrets, disappointments, failures and sometimes tragedies. Preparing to die with a soul that is in harmony with the important virtues in life is a tedious and even sobering task. I have learned that reflection has stripped me of most of my rationalizations. I now have a more realistic picture of how deeply my personal flaws run.
Surprisingly my introspection has become almost 20/20. I see my soul more clearly than ever before. My soul and body are united in a special kind of marriage. They literally embody the phrase till death do us part. It is the most natural and the most solemn of all marriages. Like many people they live together in an intimacy that is not always harmonious. In fact when it comes to the residues of Eden, sin and vice, they are often in a bellicose state of brutal conflict, which can often be fatal to their marriage.
I have always known my propensity for possessiveness, distrust and insecurity were there but while my future was still ahead of me I could more easily put those thoughts in the back of my mental bus. These times are important because I think God is telling me that in this state I am in no shape for our face-to-face. I need to cleanse myself of my tendencies and predispositions to sin the best I can. But I cannot do it alone. I try to trust that prayer and his loving guidance will help me along the way.
This is also a good time to shed the shackles of my anxieties, fears, distrust of my present and my past. That would clear the way for me to find my true joy, not in the bottle or needle but in the joyous mysteries of my own soul.
As painful as this all this may seem, I have found an inner peace in my search and exploration. For the first time I realize I am not alone in this highest and most important of all personal exams. I feel God’s presence, mercy and even understanding of what a mere mortal goes through.
Death has always terrified me. I think Woody Allen had it right when he said, I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens! Years ago I debated whether to visit a dying friend in a Hospice. A voice prompted me to go even though there was a good chance that he had already died. When I arrived around 11 that morning, the receptionist said that he wasn’t here any more…but I could go back and see the body. One of his cousins took me back to see his remains. She told me he had died at 3 a.m. that morning.
As we entered the room, not unlike the one where both of my parents had died…12 years apart in the same wing, I could see that his eyes were wide open but unable to see anything. I had witnessed several hundred deaths on TV and in the movies. I had also been to many funerals and wakes but Jim’s dead body, lying before me was new to me and so very real.
He had been a longtime friend, especially because of our mutual interest in baseball. He was my editor for three years when I wrote a commentary column for the Catholic newspaper, The St. Louis Review. By the time he saw a doctor his situation was hopeless. His cancer had spread all through his abdomen. I touched his cold skin and silently asked him to save a seat for me next to him and Stan. Legendary Stan Musial had died earlier in the year and both Jim and I had a profound respect for the greatest baseball legend St. Louis had ever seen.
On leaving the building I realized that I had seen the face of death and it had not been so bad. I think I can handle it now. I had conquered or at least made accommodations with one of the most difficult aspects of growing old. Seeing Jim like that surely could help me confront the challenges and fears of death and whatever may follow.
I know a lot of people don’t believe in any of this. They prefer to think that no matter what kind of life they have led when they die they will immediately be playing golf with St. Peter or relaxing on a cloud some place in Heaven.
But the questions remain for all. Nearing the end of one’s life is not time for such silly or naive thinking. When that final moment does eventually arrive, just like my quarterly tax bill, dying will be more than likely a final letting go.
Not too long ago I had a dream—a special kind of dream where my late roommate from Holy Cross actually spoke to me. I think it was the first and only time a dead person spoke to me as I slept. I believe Peter had suffered all his life from an inner agitation that made him uneasy in many situations. But in this dream he was relaxed, together and seemingly at peace.
I was having one of my panic attacks when I could not find my classroom on the school campus nor did I know what the schedule was. He politely told me that they had made the announcements and I was to go to such and such. All I told him was that I could not hear! I am not certain what it means but my guess is that Peter is at last at peace wherever he is and he was telling me to calm down and not worry.
Death does not terrify me as it has in the past. You will all see that I have been granted a brief and small foretouch of the world to come that excites me to no end. It is the Catholic idea of the resurrection of the body that makes death appear as a new beginning and not as a termination. It is this expression of the Catholic Imagination that energizes my faith during my final years.
It is one of the great traits the Church has that makes it different from all other religions that don’t share this belief. Imagine your body risen and glorified to spend a timeless eternity with our Creator. This is a far better idea than anything atheists and other religions offer. Imagine your body, glorified—young and without any extra body fat, pimples, blemishes and so on instead of some sort of spiritual ether wafting through the clouds.
I am convinced that there can be no Heaven without one’s body. I am really looking forward to experiencing that eternal moment, even though the body I have now is pretty much the one I want it its state of glory. My only complaint is why do we have to wait until the end of the world to have our material but risen body back. In this case I want instant gratification. The Bible says that there are many mansions in the Father’s House. If we have any choice about that, I would like to forgo the dwelling and spend eternity on a sunny beach that I have mentioned before.