Thursday, May 11, 2017

Today I Am a Man…a Really Old One

Some nights the pain in my left knee — the one that got torn up when a distracted teenaged driver hit me as I was crossing the street in Beacon, New York — makes me want to whimper, “Uncle.” I’ve had my right shoulder replaced twice, and the second time left me deformed and asymmetrical. Sometimes I get up to pee 150 times over the course of a night, and my vision is really terrible. I’ll need cataract surgery sometime in the next few years, and I’m slowly losing my left hand to arthritis, but the key word in the latter case is slowly. I’ve worked out one way or another pretty much every day since I beat nicotine 41 years ago, and eat sensibly. In high school, I had a 30-inch waist. It’s now 32 inches. I take no medications, and generally am in absurdly good health.

And am waiting for the other shoe to drop, living much of the time in barely sublimated terror. I’d be willing to bet that a small minority of those of my many contemporaries who’ve died since the beginning of 2016 saw their demises coming. And in 1990, my 73-year-old dad was just fine one week and the next in a hospital bed being told that he’d had a stroke and was unlikely to regain the ability to walk.

I don’t really dread death (he lied). Once having experienced it, I’m pretty sure I won’t have a care in the world. Conversely, I dread the hell out of dying ugly and ashen and withered in awful physical pain, or of outliving the few people who love me, or of fading away, sopping in my own urine, in one of those ghastly beige old folks’ homes, surrounded by overmedicated ancients drooling all over themselves as they stare uncomprehendingly at afternoon game shows. I have already endured quite enough loneliness (most of it self-inflicted, of course) in my lifetime. 

I dread ceasing to exist, though, as noted above, I suspect it won't bother me terribly once it's happened. On the other hand, I acknowledge I haven't done a terrific job of existing. If I were able to redeem all the days in my 70 years I’ve been pretty nearly incapacitated by depression, I’d be around 42. And I could, any time of the day or night, at a moment’s notice, be overwhelmed by shame recalling my cruelty to people who loved me in the years that I hated myself most fervently, and couldn’t help but disdain anyone blind enough to love me.

The few people who love me, indeed. So little has changed since I was 13, and the Saturday morning Hebrew school had to be let out early in hopes that enough kids waiting for their parents to pick them up might wander in and drown out the crickets at my bar mitzvah. Early this year, I had thought in terms of throwing a big party for myself, only to realise that all of those I’d want to invite could probably fit in the back seat of my wife’s little Nissan Micra. Part of that’s to do with my not having had a steady job with befriendable colleagues for decades. The bigger part is that I find most people quite hard work.

I’d be a fool to imagine I’ll ever speak again to the person I’ve loved most in the world, my daughter, who hasn’t spoken to me in 15 years and a month as I write this. I thought for the 17 years I had with her that I was doing a better job of being her daddy than I’d ever done of anything. Her having summarily banished me from her life emphatically suggests otherwise. I live every day with that sense of invalidation. On the other hand, of course, I have the love of a wonderful woman. Please, God, if you exist, let her out live me.

In the days when I was reflexively monstrous to those who loved me most, it never even occurred to me to banish them from my life.

As a young man, imagining that universal adoration might put a dent in my self-loathing, I aspired to fame. I didn’t achieve it (though I wrote liner notes for a record album that a lot of people remember with wildly disproportionate fondness (whoopee!)). I now realise it’s just as well I didn’t. Knowing myself as I do, I’m confident that I’d have come very quickly to find the adulation of the masses oppressive at best, and infuriating at worst, as in, “What’s wrong with this guy, loving [Song A] more than [Song B], of which I’m prouder?”

For approximately four decades, I’ve been waiting for someone to ring me or email me to say, “Hey, you’re really terrific [at writing, or songwriting, or acting, or graphic design]! Are you in the market for a patron?” My most daunting challenge is to fill my hours meaningfully. Sometimes the world’s refusal to pay attention takes the pen out of my hand, or my hands off the piano keyboard. At such moments, I am unable to see the point of composing another song that 14 people on earth will ever hear, or writing a short story that nine will read, seven of them begrudgingly. I remind myself that the pleasure of creation should be sufficient reward. Very often it is not.

Those hours when I can’t force myself to pick up the pen pass glacially, while the months seem to last for hours now. I am very conscious of being in what Irene Hepworth calls The Departure Lounge, waiting for my flight to board. But trying to squeeze the maximum joyfulness out of each day flies in the face of the most important lesson I’ve learned in my lifetime — that the only way to live in the world is gratefully. 

Those who’ve survived awful medical crises speak of how much they cherish the little things. I’m trying to cherish the little fuckers without having suffered the medical crisis.

In closing, I'm going to confess something that, until a few minutes ago, no one knew about me. I firmly believe that when I die, the world will end.