I’m moving to a new home this week. Packers will be in tomorrow. So I will be temporarily offline starting today until I’m settled in my new surroundings. I should be back online in early June.
More years passed. One day, my daughter’s husband called me and asked me to come to their house right away. I explained that I was in jeans and a tee-shirt and would have to bathe and dress. No, he said, come as you are. He gave no explanation.
Alarmed, I hurried to their place. As soon as I arrived, they told me to get in their car. We were going somewhere. No explanation of where.
We drove into Washington, D.C., and I remarked that we were getting close to the Kennedy Center. Once there, my daughter and her husband escorted me through the stage entrance to the Eisenhower Theater. The theater’s stage was filled with Steinway grand pianos. I learned that the Kennedy Center was replacing its pianos and was selling off the old ones.
My daughter urged me to try the pianos and decide which one I liked best. The prospect of playing all those pianos excited me, and I set to work. I found one that thrilled me with the beauty of its sound. I tried others but kept coming back to that one. I realized that this was the instrument I had played in the lounge and fallen in love with.
That piano now sits in my living room. Susan had brought me there to select my favorite which she then proceeded to buy for me.
Some time ago in this blog, I told the story of how I came to own the most beautiful piano I have ever played. It’s a story worth repeating.
It starts with my divorce from my first wife, the mother of my four children. During the hearings, my wife had testified about me and offered evidence as to why she should be awarded the lion’s share of out joint holdings. I had just taken the witness stand to tell my side of the story and recount her misdeeds when I spotted a neighbor coming into the courtroom with one of my daughters. I clammed up. I wasn’t about to narrate my wife’s considerable failings and egregious acts before one of her children.
I learned later that my wife had arranged for one of my children to be present during my testimony. She believed, correctly, that I would not level severe criticisms against her with one of her children listening. The end result was that I lost everything. My wife was awarded all our property, and I had to pay alimony. I was destitute. I was reduced to living in a rented attic in a joint house with five other men.
As time passed, I gradually regained financial equilibrium. Then my ex-wife died suddenly. I was free of the onerous alimony.
Meanwhile, my oldest daughter, Susan, now an adult, and I subscribed to the ballet series at the Kennedy Center every year. Often, before the performance, we would visit the opera house lounge. We would arrive early in the evening before the hired pianist was on duty. I’ve never been able to resist a playing a piano sitting idle and waiting for attention, so I asked if I could try the Steinway grand that was in the lounge.
Over the years, I tried a number of different pianos. One I played enthralled me. It had the most beautiful sound I had ever encountered. I played it before each of the performances that season. The next season, it was gone—replaced by another piano.
The rewards and detriments of aging notwithstanding, the final phase of aging is death. I try to push the thought away, but it won’t go away. How will I prepare?
The end of human life is inescapable for all of us. As mentioned earlier in this blog, we Americans are the only people I know of who avoid the subject of death. We never mention it. We write, live, and think as if it didn’t exist. But it’s still there.
I am comfortable in facing my end in one respect. I’ve led a long, happy, and productive life. I can be justly proud of the lives I saved during the fall of Saigon. I am gratified by my own performance during my five years of taking care of men dying of AIDS. I am fulfilled by my writing—four novels, several articles, and seventeen short stories now in print with two more books to be published early next year. I am at peace with the life I have lived so far. My expectation is that I will have more to be proud of before the end.
I earnestly wish that I had religious faith. That would allow me to see death as the end of one life and the beginning of another, far better life. I’m not so fortunate. I try, with every bit of my strength, to believe in God and the life hereafter. I pray every night in hopes that there is a God who hears me. I remain unconvinced.
So I am forced to conclude that death will mean the end of my existence. I am working, with mixed results, to find peace in that conclusion. Maybe by the time death arrives for me, I’ll accept it with tranquility. I’m moving in that direction.
It’s true. As my body and my brain slow down with age, my mind functions better than it ever has.
What is the mind? It’s the incorporeal entity which Webster defines as “that which reasons,” the doer of intellectual tasks. It depends on the brain to do its work, but it is not the brain. To my way of thinking, it is close to synonymous with spirit or soul.
As my mind grows, the depth of my understand continues to expand. Concepts once alien to me are for the first time clear. I see connections I was once blind to. I am able to reason through ideas that used to confound me. All my life I have heard that wisdom comes with age. Wisdom is not knowledge but understanding. I understand better than I have at any time in my life.
Most of all, I’m better able to write. Since that is my life calling, my growing facility is the greatest blessing I could ask for. I have a new proficiency at finding exactly the right word or stream of words to express precisely the meaning, flavor, and context I seek. My prose is sleeker, more efficient.
Of greatest value, I am able for the first time to understand, cultivate, and express the palpitations of the human soul at a level never before possible. My characters emerge not just as credible human beings but as sharply individual and profound. They exhibit quirks that reflect their individual spirits. They act at a new level of subtlety. The way they see their world and other people underscores their individual humanity.
If a failing body and brain are the price of aging, the new acumen of the mind—wisdom—is its reward. I’m more than willing to pay the price in exchange for the reward.
So I’m in remarkably good shape for my age. Despite all that, every day I feel the effects of aging getting in the way of what I want to do.
I don’t have the physical strength I once had. I’m not able to lift and carry the weight I used to be able to handle. I can’t run any more due to the flubbed knee surgery. I tire much too quickly and need to rest too much.
My brain doesn’t work as well as it used to. I can’t think as fast or as effectively as I once did. I can’t read as quickly anymore, and I sometimes have to go back and reread because I didn’t understand or even forgot what I just read.
Worst is my failing memory. Sometimes I can’t remember people’s names. I don’t recall what happened when. In writing, I have to search for words because they no longer spring full blown into my mind.
But just as I’m cunning in dealing with my body’s shortcomings, I’m wily at coping with my brain failures. I’ve taught myself to write down people’s names. I do the same with words. I’ve learned to find synonyms or antonyms for words I can’t remember and look them up in the dictionary. I use the memory of smells and sounds to spark my recall of names and words. Being devious isn’t always a vice.
Despite the slowing of the brain, the mind is richer than ever. I’ll talk about that tomorrow.
I’m blessed. I am in better health and better physical shape than any man I know of my age. I just passed a physical with flying colors.
But I have my share of problems. I have a slight limp as the result of a botched knee replacement surgery some years ago. My left arm still hurts periodically from a fall a year ago last winter. My lungs still produce mucous, and I’m subject to sneezing fits several times daily—the aftermath of lung cancer and the surgical removal of the upper lobe of my right lung. And I suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury from my years in Vietnam and the horrors of the fall of Saigon.
The most annoying detriment is my lack of energy. Every day, by mid-afternoon, I’m worn out and have to rest for an hour. That means I carefully plan my work schedule to be sure I get everything done. What a nuisance.
On the other hand, I’m more active than any man I know of comparable age. I write every day. I do presentations and readings constantly. I maintain my home, cook for myself, shop, and entertain. My biggest problem is finding the time (and energy) to get everything done.
I owe my excellent health to several factors. One, I have the good luck to be preternaturally healthy. I have no idea why. Besides, I have always been physically active. I was a runner for many years before my knee surgery, and all my life, I’ve lifted weights. I watch what I eat to keep my weight at a healthy level. I’m a past master at sleeping. I can (and do) sleep anywhere, any time. I always get enough rest.
And I have a can-do attitude about staying healthy. I consider consciously what is good for me and avoid what is not. I’m a crafty schemer when it comes to tricking my body into doing what needs to be done. I know, for example, that if I sleep in the afternoon and go to bed before ten in the evening, I’ll awaken between four and six in the morning and have extra hours to work at peak performance before I tire.