“When are you going to die?” Maddie asks.
Soon enough, Maddie, soon enough. Thanks for the encouragement. Do I really look that bad?
I guess it’s not an unreasonable question for a twelve-year-old to ask her sixty-one-year-old uncle. My grandfather was forty-nine years older than me when I was twelve, precisely the same age I am today. I knew him as a working man, only briefly. He drove me on a couple of his transits up and down Damen avenue for the CTA. We inspected all the IBM mainframes with the spinning mag tapes in the Merchandise Mart, where he still worked for the CTA after he stopped driving, although, as the IT guy put it, there wasn’t much to see. I mostly knew him as a retired older man who wouldn’t throw back a bluegill no matter how small and still played a crackerjack game of pinochle to the end. He lived to eighty-nine. Following his example would give me twenty-eight more years. You would be forty.
There are far more days behind than ahead, even if I am lucky enough to live twenty-eight more years. The warranty on this body has long expired. My ankles are shot from repeated sprains from playing basketball for forty years. I literally fell over a crack in the sidewalk once because my ankle buckled. I’ve torn the rotator cuffs on both shoulders. My left bicep tendon is ripped, so I have a Popeye arm. My eyesight is getting worse. I have constant ringing in my ears, and I don’t hear mid-range frequencies. I have arthritis in the hips, prostate issues, and my balance is off. I can’t remember things I can’t believe I could forget. My legs cramp up at night for no good reason. I get random migraines. They’ve removed precancerous skin from my nose and polyps from my ass. I’m slightly anemic, and the kidney measurements are out of tolerance. In short, I’m old. Old age is going to get me if nothing else does. My mind doesn’t actually know that it is old. This is just the feedback it gets from its body and the rest of the world. As my mind has repeatedly stated, “I’m not accepting feedback at this time.”
The people I admire pursue their ambitions right up to the end. Albert Einstein worked on equations within four hours of his death. David Attenborough still tries to save the natural world at ninety-four though he will never live to see it. Mick Jagger is still onstage singing and prancing at seventy-eight. Clint Eastwood directed and acted in another movie at ninety.
I plan to do the same. Late in life, I’ve picked up the guitar, started making wine, learned how to ride a motorcycle, took up photography, and wrote three books. I hope to keep writing, hiking, playing guitar, socializing with friends, taking pictures, traveling to exotic countries, and hanging out with my young nieces while still sharing time with them on this planet.
I once quipped that you should take more risks when you are old because you have less to lose. While that is true, I didn’t understand that everyday things and ordinary tasks are a hell of a lot riskier when you are older, but I’m not dead yet. And I still take risks and enjoy my bad habits. So it could be sooner than twenty-eight years.
I ride a motorcycle. I once miscalculated a negatively banked turn in the desert and went into the other lane. Another time, while emerging from a rock formation on either side of a two-lane highway, the wind gusted so hard from one side of the road to another that it blew me clear into the oncoming lane of traffic. There was nothing I could have done about it if a car had been coming from the other direction. On my recent trip to Seattle and back, a black pickup tried to pass me on a blind curve, and sure enough, a car was coming in the other direction. He missed the oncoming vehicle and my bike by inches. Either way would have been death for all of us. Medical personnel refer to motorcycle drivers as organ donors though I’m not sure my old organs are worth anything anymore.
I scuba dive. I dove with a friend who turned seasick at the sight of waving kelp fronds. Instead of letting out the air as he ascended, he inflated his vest so that he would go faster. If you don’t want your lungs to explode, that is the exact opposite of what you should do. When he reached the surface, he fed the fish in a big way. On another dive, my dive buddy, a young man from Hong Kong, lost control and tried to surface in a boat lane on a current dive that required a short kick at the end into the current to reach the boat. It’s an excellent way to lose your head. Fortunately, the divemasters responded quickly and saved my dive buddies in both cases. I don’t consider scuba a high-risk sport, but it is not without its dangers.
I hike alone most of the time, but I prefer it that way. Thirty years ago, I wouldn’t have been comfortable with that. Today, it is hard to imagine having to talk on the trail with someone for two or three or more hours. It seems like a burden and a distraction. I hike in mountain lion country. All the signs say hike with a buddy, and if you encounter one, don’t run and try to look big. Admittedly, attacks are rare. A more likely scenario for my premature demise would be a heart attack or a stroke out in the middle of nowhere. I’ve had my heart skip a beat a few times while playing basketball. I couldn’t catch my breath for a couple of minutes, no matter how hard I breathed. I went to the dentist, and his blood pressure machine told me I had an afib. The doctor put me through EKGs and sonograms, and eventually, I ended up wearing a patch for two weeks. They told me I had a slightly enlarged aorta but was otherwise fine.
I live alone. Studies claim that married people live longer. The implication is that they have happier lives. Still, given how miserable I know some couples to be, I don’t think it has much to do with happiness. I think the real reason that couples live longer is that first, women nag men into seeing the doctor when they should. Second, if something happens to one person, the other is there to help or get help. I’m not going to get married only for that reason.
I drink too much alcohol. Or perhaps I don’t. So my impending demise could be sooner, or maybe not. Studies claim a glass of alcohol is supposed to be good for you. Okay, that tends to turn into two, sometimes three or four. I sometimes joke that I’m an antisocial drinker, meaning I prefer to drink alone. But that is just a joke. To answer your other poignant question, Maddie, “Do you have any friends?” I have friends who drink socially with the same gusto as me. You might ask, but you didn’t, “What’s the attraction?” Alcohol turns off all that brain function that tells you what you shouldn’t do and lets you do some things you should. Of course, too much just makes you stupid and dangerous.
If I could live forever in a healthy body with a healthy mind, I would take up everything and go everywhere. If I were still young, I would do more than look wantonly at beautiful, exotic women, but age takes away those opportunities. You have to pick and choose. You can be anything you want to be, but you can’t be everything you want to be, and you have to work with the opportunities that present themselves. My life choices to date have been limited by time more than resources. I think that is what it means to be rich. So I can’t complain, even if I don’t make it to sixty-two.
So, Maddie, my time is growing short. I don’t know the exact date and cause of my demise. I can only speculate. When I am gone, I hope you have some of my writing and my pictures to remember me by. And most important, pleasant memories of me that you will be able to keep for a very long time.