This morning I sent birthday greetings to a school friend who turned sixty nine. I’ll be joining her in the last year of my sixties in November. The numbers that I carry in my head just don’t compute. My living aunts are now in their mid to late nineties. My children are well into their forties. I have grandchildren in college. Most of the time I feel much younger than I actually am, but then something happens that sobers me and sends me into a tizzy, like hearing that the son of one of my friends from childhood has died from a heart attack, or that a young woman that I once mentored at work is being treated for cancer.
I am at a somewhat lovely age in that I no longer have to report to work each day. I am free to travel or do whatever pleases me from hour to hour. I still possess almost boundless energy but when I exert myself too much my body reminds me that I am no longer a spring chicken. I’ve got arthritis in my knees and I administer a daily injection of an experimental drug in the hopes of producing stronger bones than the ones left in a lacy swiss cheese condition by my osteoporosis. I act as though I have all of the time in the world to fulfill the goals and dreams that I continue to create for myself, often forgetting that my time on this earth is becoming more and more limited. Those numbers in my head as well as the realities of our human existence talk to me in the dark of night and urge me to seize each day.
I have already lost so many friends with whom I spent my youth. In my mind’s eye I still see them as being vibrant and beautiful. They ran with me and laughed at the clock and thought little of illnesses or endings. It did not occur to me that they would be missing at the very time when we might have had the most fun together, when our labors were done and we were free to roam the earth in search of more adventures. Watching them leave has been difficult and has prompted me to think of my own mortality. Even worse have been the deaths of the children of my peers, the young adults whose passing seems so terribly out of sync with the way things should be. In a perfect world I have the ability to order from least to greatest. In truth occurrences are random in their probabilities.
Mostly I don’t dwell on such things, but there are moments when there is so much suffering around me that it is impossible not to face the facts of life. I realize that if I add multiples of ten to my age I become very old, very quickly. In my mind the nineteen nineties were only yesterday but they actually happened almost thirty years ago. Each day, week, month, year is flying by at warp speed taking me into a future that is more uncertain than any era in which I have so far lived. The dominoes of my life will begin to fall with greater and greater rapidity. I don’t want to think about those things until tomorrow, but they will surely come at a steady pace. The numbers in my head are truth tellers. The math leads to one and only one conclusion, and like J. Alfred Prufrock I rage against the dying of the light.
I want to be prepared for what lies ahead. I want to meet my fate with optimism and courage. I do my best to find happiness even in the darkest hours, but I now understand the fear and the anger that my best friend felt as she understood that her cancer was slowly stealing away her life. I am more open to being sympathetic to the relentless monotony of my aging aunts who are confined to wheelchairs and small rooms. I think of my mother measuring out her days as she grew ever more ill and weak, wanting desperately to leave me with her wisdom. I was confused when my hundred year old grandfather continually spoke of being tired and missing all of his friends and loved ones. I had little patience with the thought of surrendering to fate. I viewed myself as someone who might be dancing jigs right up until my very last breath. That was, of course, before I witnessed people my age being cut down by illnesses that changed them. They had once been warriors like me and it was incongruously difficult to imagine them bedridden and unable to take on the world by storm as they always had. The numbers caught up with them just as they will one day do with me and everyone else that I know, which means that I must begin to focus more and more on what is really important. I have to face the fact that I do not have forever.
People are always more important than things, but things steal our time and energy. When the clock is ticking we have to choose what to push aside. That visit that we speak of making needs to be put on our calendars today, ahead of the cleaning and the repairs of our stuff. Those thoughts that we have wanted to express must be recorded now, not after we take out the trash. The dishes will wait but the call to someone important may come too late if we hesitate. The numbers are there, telling each of us that there is a limit to the count of the days that we each have on this earth. We have to make the best of every single moment before we are no longer able.
I suspect that I may sound a bit morose today. I am thinking of the lost opportunities that I had to celebrate with those who are now gone forever, the moments when I was too preoccupied to really listen to what they had to say. I wrongly believed that there was plenty of time and that I had far more important tasks to perform than lingering just a bit longer with them. Now I see. Now I understand.
My life has been all about numbers. I am a mathematics teacher. I have told my students that the ciphers and algorithms never lie. They link us to both the past and the present. They explain the workings of our world. Now the numbers tell me to embrace the beauty of love and friendships every moment of every day. They remind me of the limits that I am approaching and of the need to prioritize my energies. The numbers will eventually terminate, just as they should. My faith tells me that I will one day find the infinite peace of everlasting life, but until then I must listen to the gentle whispers of the numbers chiding me to live with gusto and an open heart.