I think my dad was about my age when he started keeping the list. He noted the date of death and the age of people he knew in the film industry when an obit appeared in Variety. The list merited a designated yellow legal pad and grew to be many pages long. I guess it's packed away somewhere or maybe in an unsentimental moment I tossed it. I do remember tackling the Rolodex, after his death at age 89, and when towards the end of the alphabet I found that not a single person was still alive, I hurled the whole thing into the dumpster.
For decades now my friend Richard has tracked celebrity deaths. He indoctrinated a number of friends and offered a one dollar reward to anyone who was the first to notify him of a death. The policy was changed facing the recession when a special “Last Gasp” list was generated and only very old or ailing celebrities were worth a buck. After 30 plus years I am the only player left, although my children are honorary participants (but ineligible for cash prizes). I'm up two bucks in the last weeks, Lauren Bacall and Richard Attenborough.
My mom would refer to herself “kicking the bucket” frequently. She left everything in meticulous order rendering her pre-mortum admonishments unnecessary, and ultimately ineffective in the genuine objective, which was to get my attention. I don't do the “I'm going to die soon so you'd better be nice to me,” thing with my kids but I do more fully understand the emptiness Mom suffered in my absence. At least I have Himself to keep me company in the house that suddenly seems much too big for our dinners of sardines and English muffins and the single weekly load of laundry.
For all of my parents' levity I think both of them were afraid of dying. I sense that they felt, even to the end, that there was something that they missed. I think that growing up during the Depression scarred them both and good fortune never felt more than ephemeral. My mother agonized about maintaining her youthful appearance and would have endured water-boarding rather than reveal her age. My dad was slavishly committed to fitness and keeping up with a wife younger than my sister. There was a palpable restlessness in both of my parents. I am grateful for a childhood comfortable enough not to cloud my appreciation of my future blessings.
I joked about both of my parents' frugality. My dad and stepmother shared the early bird special at Norms. My mother left drawers overflowing with coupons. Now that it's dawned on me that there will inevitably be a time when I don't want to, or am unable to work, a light left on overnight makes me insane. I know my children can't fathom being as old as I am now. “If I ever get unstrung about a light being left on, just shoot me.” I try to gently tell them the things I wish that I'd done when I was their age, but really, why would they act like old men?
We spend a few days in Felton. We rent the oldest cabin in a small tract of redwoods that has been in the same family for many generations. In the past we have visited two or three times a year but now it's been over a year since our last visit. Over the course of a decade we have seen the cabin transition. An adult son and his wife appear to be in charge now. The plastic flower arrangements are gone. There is a new sofa. A hideous ceiling fan, positioned so that it interfered with a cabinet door, is removed. Light fixtures are updated and good quality draperies replace cheap blinds. Still, it feels like family and how awesome for the current owners to know that their great great grandparents summered too in the cool of this same forest. Perhaps we are the first of many generations to inhabit Casamurphy or maybe the kids will be clearing the place out with giant trash bags far sooner than I can bear to think about.
I have a handful of friends I've known since my teens or early twenties. We talk now about maladies and retirement but we do it self consciously, almost theatrically. Are we really this old? The weed seeds spilling out of the Joni Mitchell album phase seemed eternal. The “waiting for life to begin” felt like forever. It did happen though. Life did indeed begin but I cannot pinpoint the date.
I started playing the dead celebrity game in my twenties. There have been many premature losses but it's usually people in their 80s or older which when the game began seemed like no big deal. I still love winning but with every buck I am reminded that I myself am approaching my own inevitability. Each death my dad recorded brought him closer to his final entry, Al Drebin.
Death, as I understand it, is the end of consciousness and of all joy and suffering. I expect I'll experience nothing when I cease to be. I am not afraid to be dead. Towards the end of their lives there were times when the thought of seeing my parents brought sick dread. My father went from working full time to our decision to remove a ventilator in a little over a month. My mother's decline was over the course of five years. I used the kids as an excuse not to spend as much time with them as I could have. The thought of my own kids potentially experiencing this in the face of my own decline is far scarier than death itself.
My sister died a sad early death but it ended many years of suffering. My parents both lived to be 89. Dad went quickly and without much suffering. Mom returned to a peaceful childlike state during her last years. She would have been repulsed to witness her own decline, which may be the ironic grace of Alzheimer's. These three deaths were very sad but each also conferred a degree of relief. My own list though, like my dad's, will grow. People I barely remember will die but also some of the same people with whom I closely shared seemingly endless youth will leave me too. Who will grieve the loss of who?
Spuds needs to declare his major this semester and is being pulled by his love of art and his enjoyment of money. Joe College graduates in May with a liberal arts degree and six months to begin paying off his student loans. I do not trivialize the stresses both boys suffer. I would not diminish their college exertions by pointing out that in the scheme of things these agonizing decisions likely will have little or no long-term weight. But they are in that slow motion phase of life when you wait for it to happen, while I have reached near warp speed. Sometimes they humor me and let me blather on about what I have learned in my life but my ancient history's just not applicable. There is some project that asks people to write letters to their younger selves. I can't think of anything in particular that I would say and I wouldn't have read it anyway.
(The painting is A Measure of Dreams by Arthur B. Davies)