Anyone who writes about life must think about death.  It is not being morbid to do so.  As Steve Jobs said in an address at Stanford University in 2004 which has become famous since he himself died prematurely at the summit of his life as the greatest design and marketing genius of his age: “Death is very likely the single best intervention of life.  It is life’s change agent.  It clears out the old to make way for the new.”  It serves no purpose to flinch from this simple fact of life.

Of course, that is true of death in general, death in the abstract.  It is not easy to face up to one’s own personal extinction.  “I like to think that something survives after you die,” Steve Jobs said.  “But on the other hand, perhaps it’s like an on-off switch.  Click! And you’re gone”.  It is said it is as impossible to gaze at one’s own death as it is to gaze at the sun at high noon in a cloudless sky.  And much of one’s life is spent in the desperate game and hurly-burly of averting one’s gaze – working and playing, planning and scheming, getting and spending, loving and hating, building and tearing down, filling every hour as much as possible with people to connect to and things to do.  And this is as it should be.  How dismal it would be to mope around considering the futility of everything since nothing lasts.  Far better the frenzy of the too-busy life than the depressed stupor of continually thinking about the end for oneself.

As one gets older, however,it gets harder to outpace death’s presence.  For one thing, your fellow runners in the race with whom you loved to stride beside and compete against and with whom it was so good to compare notes keep dropping out.  This is a sad business, losing with ever-increasing regularity good friends and beloved family members who sedately, or suddenly, depart.  It is more gradual than the massacre of battle or natural catastrophe but steadily and just as surely “the ranks of friends and rivals both are sadly trimmed.”  And it cannot be a surprise when the time comes when an ominous diagnosis applies not to someone else but to yourself.  Life gives no exemption in the eternal process of give and take,

One result of this steady attrition is that the memories you accumulated and shared with so many can be exchanged with fewer and fewer and are eventually lost.  This is a pity and a waste and a cause of deepening regret.  It is one good reason why everyone over 70 who can should write down as carefully, but also as entertainingly, as possible memories of his or her life and perhaps for good measure make a few judgements and conclusions.  Leaving behind a complete blank is the depressing alternative.

I do not find I am enjoying life less as I get older and the reality of one’s death naturally gets closer.  The joys and satisfactions, it is of course true, have changed their complexion but who is to say that what delighted me then is superior to what delights me now in the experience of life, whose ever-changing nature is one of the glories of creation.  Then the carnival of senses counted most, the blaze of action was best, to be tethered down at rest was life wasted.  Now pleasures have quieted down, they have simplified, they have even perhaps deepened into a more lasting contentment of the spirit.

I am always reading poetry and discovering new poets—new to me, that is.  A.R Ammons is one such poet.  I find he is famous on the American literary scene but until recently I had never read his work.  One of the good things that keep on happening is that no matter how old one gets any day that dawns may, and very often does, bring a new discovery, a new wonder, an encounter with something intriguing, delightfully different, thought-provoking – life seen suddenly from a new angle.  I am surprised it has taken so long for me to get to know A.R. Ammons.  But now I have him dancing in my mind.  And in his poetry I find a poem which could not express better what one comes to think as one gets to my age.  This is the well-written truth about life and death.  The poem is:

 

In View of the Fact

 

The people of my time are passing away: my

wife is baking for a funeral, a 60-year old who

 

 died suddenly, when the phone rings, and it’s

 Ruth we care so much about in intensive care:

 

 It was once weddings that came so thick and

 fast, and then, first babies, such a hullabaloo:

 

  now, it’s this that and the other and somebody

  else gone or on the brink: well, we never

 

  thought we would live forever (although we did)

  and now it looks like we won’t: some of us

 

 are losing a leg to diabetes, some don’t know

 what they went downstairs for, some know that

 

 a hired watchful person is around, some like

 to touch the cane tip into something steady,

so nice: we have already lost so many,

brushed the loss of ourselves ourselves: our 

address books for so long a slow scramble now

are palimpsests, scribbles and scratches: or

index cards for Christmases, birthdays,

Halloweens drop clean away into sympathies:

at the same time we are getting used to so

many leaving, we are hanging on with a grip

to the ones left: we are not giving up on the

congestive heart failure or brain tumors, on

the nice old men left in empty houses or on

the widows who decide to travel a lot: we

think the sun may shine someday when we’ll

drink wine together and think of what used to

 be: until we die we will remember every

 single thing, recall every word, love every

 loss: then we will, as we must, leave it to

others to love, love that can grow brighter

and deeper till the very end gathering strength

and getting more precious all the way.…

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