Passing Away

I just finished watching Sister Act 2, an unimportant movie filled with engaging music. Whoopi Goldberg, Lauren Hill, and Ryan Toby kick song-and-dance ass, and there’s no reason not to love the tunes’ exuberance, even while looking askance at the sentimental nonsense of the plot. Part of my problem is that I don’t know whether just the music or also the sentimentality has left me suddenly close to open weeping.

I don’t think of myself as terribly vulnerable or emotionally repressed, but it seems I’m a raw nerve. Maybe I’m just attuned to the emotional power of music. Maybe I’m out of touch with my own heart and mind.

For the last two days, Jean and I have hauled furniture from her family home to her brother’s house in Weston, our nephew’s temporary apartment in New Haven, our son and his girlfriend’s loft in Brooklyn, our own house in Norwalk, and city dumps in both New York and Connecticut. I’m exhausted. And I’m terribly aware that we are shutting down the house that Jean grew up in, the house her father and his family built by hand, the house that was home to all of them and all their friends and neighbors and eventual sons-in-law and thirteen grandchildren. It has been a joyous house and my second home.

And last night I got in touch with M______ to see if he and A_____ are up for a visit. I’m glad they are—despite the prognosis and the chemo. My old, close friend is dying. I don’t think about it all day, every day, but when I think about it, clouds and sleet fill my chest.

And also, although she seems well out of danger now, for the last year one of my closest teaching friends has suffered, when much too young and with a five-year-old to raise and cherish, from the effort of kicking stage-4 breast cancer out of her life.

Today I told Jean that it’s clear the problem of friends’ dying will be with us the rest of our lives. She nodded.

Only pain and suffering, extreme hate and love, would really matter much, would evoke sudden, fierce emotions, if it weren’t for mortality. Knowing we will die, and perhaps soon, each joy is tainted and made precious by the knowledge of its passing.

For most of my life, I have feared old age, especially since watching my mother crumble under the weight of alzheimer’s. When I was thirteen or fourteen, my parents were concerned about my discomfort around old and feeble people, a discomfort I largely outgrew. But I still have a dread of being old and feeble myself. Nonetheless, for most of my life I have felt free of any fear of death. An agnostic who leans strongly towards atheism, I remember arguing with a friend about having no fear of death because endless, dreamless sleep and angst-free oblivion could do me no harm. He found such nullity more terrible. He actually preferred the possibility of Hell to disappearance and the soulless existence it implies.

Nowadays, I feel his point. And I may need to reflect on this much more.

Right now, though, I simply don’t think I’m the proverbial atheist in a foxhole. At 66 and having had a few health scares, I can see my death in the near distance, but it’s not imminent. I feel well and look forward to travel and weddings and celebrations that I have every expectation of getting to enjoy. But the health scares—along with the hair loss and the aching joints and a tendency to slip into napping during free afternoons—do tell me I’m not the robust youth I used to be.

And so mortality haunts the back of my mind and sometimes asks for attention, as it has today, as I write this reflection about slipping into tears while watching a hackneyed movie.

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