You’ve heard the syllogism:
“All men are mortal;
“Socrates is a man;
“Therefore Socrates is mortal.”
The logic is airtight, inescapable — so long as it is applied to someone else. Substitute your own name, or a personal pronoun, for Socrates, and it has the feel of a cage. We all hope to be Houdini in the end. None of us are.
This has been a year dominated by thoughts of death. I turn 60 next Monday, and, all at once, the hourglass that seemed so full of sand, the fund of energy that seemed inexhaustible, looks and feels different.
All year long, I’ve been grumbling about it under my breath, consumed at times with nostalgia to go back to places that define me — Detroit, the Huron National Forest in Michigan, Chicago. It’s almost as if I had hoped a return trip would show me the door I missed, the door that rescues me from the iron grip of necessity.
But, as Jim Morrison’s biographer once said: “No one gets out alive.” No one.
Turning 60 is a reminder — a powerful stab.
So I surprised myself this week, strolling along, almost giddy, gleefully contemplating a birthday that, given the facts and circumstances of a misspent youth, I never really thought I’d see.
I was laying abed one morning, assembling the day in my mind’s eye, worrying about this case, wondering about the payroll, the office expenses, and the sorry state of the world. It was almost enough to make me want to pull the covers over my head. But retreat is not my style. I intend to face the Fates when they come for me.
Then it struck me.
A thunderbolt really.
“All men are mortal;
“I am a man;
“Therefore I am mortal.”
Less prosaically — I will, in fact, go the way of all flesh, vanishing into what Homer sometimes called the under gloom. It is inevitable, and inconceivable, meaning that all I know of the world and is pleasures and sorrows I have learned from experience. I know nothing of death. Why worry what can’t be known?
Why worry at all?
It helps, of course, that one of our border collies, Penelope, has been diagnosed with lymphoma. She’s still undergoing testing to determine a treatment course. All at once, and unexpectedly, I burst into tears. This dog has taught me so much about loyalty, trust and love. A world without her seems barren.
I talk to my dogs all the time. So I’ve talked her perky ears off about all this. She’s a border collie, I repeat, and fiercely intelligent. She cocks her head and tries to understand. Is there a command I am making? Is there some work she must do to satisfy her breed’s urgent demand?
I know the content of my speech is noise to her. What she longs for is the sound of my voice. She doesn’t know she’s ill; she doesn’t know that the world will sooner than we had hoped disappear. She lives in the moment, and for the moment.
There’s a lesson in that. Dogs — gods spelled backward, I note — can teach us to die.
So Penelope and I walk, lost in the sensations of the world present at hand. Sufficient unto each moment is the day.
One day on a morning jog, I imagined her running beside me. She was setting me free, really. It was time for me to learn to walk, to run, to amble along without her. She’s been nurturing me for over a decade. Her work is near done.
Somehow, that is fine with me.
Then that morning as I was laying abed it struck me: This is the life I have, the only one I am given, there are only so many grains of sand in my timepiece. Will moping about aging add a grain? Or is such moping a waste of vigor I now possess?
My wife has a weekend of celebration planned for just the two of us. I usually grumble about birthdays, preferring to ignore them, to act as if they are someone else’s problem. Not this year. I intend to revel in every minute.
It is a surprise, really, to discover this joy hidden like a jewel in the passage of time. I am alive today. And healthy, too — how can I be healthy? I ask my doctor. I scream at people all day long, never shirking from a fight, always looking to stir a pot. A day without stress aplenty seems empty, a promise unfulfilled.
“Perhaps that’s why,” my doctor responds.
There are no guarantees. I get that. The superstition in me counsels against writing this. It will, after all, appear days before my birthday. What if I am struck down by the gods for hubris? After all, didn’t Bambi send an assassin in the form of a young doe to total my car this past spring only days away from its odometer turning 200,000 miles?
Superstition is for sissies. I press on, mortal, proud and content.
I am mortal, and I know it. I won’t linger waiting for the inevitable; it will find me when it can.
But today? Today, I am alive and happy to be so,
If you see me wandering the streets like a kid in a candy shop, cut me some slack. Along about 60, I think I’ve learned a little bit about living. The lesson is simple: Seize the day.
Someday, and too soon, each of us will enjoy our last.