January 7, 2016

Seems like old times

Sam Smith

Three years ago my wife gave me a great 75th birthday party at Linda Bean’s restaurant across from her grandfather’s Maine store. Everything went well until the next morning when I realized I had blown my cover.

Part of my strategy in life has been to pretend that I wasn’t getting any older, a con aided by the fact that I was a physical spoiled brat, which is to say that other than prostate cancer, hurting my back while pumping iron, and hundreds of hours in dental offices, nothing serious had bothered my health. .

I attribute my condition in part to the fact that I spent my first ten years in a house built on a trash dump. In those days, many homes in Washington had restrictive covenants on them, barring sale not only to blacks and Jews, but to an assortment of other ethnic pariahs including "Syrians and Persians." My father and mother - he a mid level official of the New Deal - weren’t going to sign such a document.

The Georgetown trash dump came without a restrictive covenant. And three years after their modern house was built, it was still listed in the 1940s census as a "rural residence."

Thus I was a sub teen before I realized that dirt didn’t naturally have broken glass and metal in it. Further, as a teenager I worked summers on an organic farm handling real manure rather than the virtual variety that I would confront in my journalistic career. And my five siblings and I would get annual poison ivy shots from the town doctor - all with the same needle.

I mentioned such random natural immunization to one of my doctors and he agreed with its significance, noting that he had been a child in Spring Valley where, as one account puts it:
“On a winter morning in 1993, the residents of the affluent Washington, DC neighborhood known as Spring Valley awoke to the news that construction workers had unearthed World War I munitions in the backyards of two homes. Unbeknownst to them, the United States Army developed toxic chemicals at nearby Camp American University and tested them in the surrounding countryside during the war. There is no record of where they might have been buried, and after the war ended the land was sold to a developer, who built houses on the site.”
When I was a child, I did however worry, perhaps inordinately, about dying. As I wrote once:
I became infatuated with the idea that I would not survive past the early twenties… There was surprisingly little morose about this, though I knew, from my reading and radio listening, that a polar bear might attack you at any moment -- that is if you were living a truly interesting life. This would be tragic -- but in a literary sense -- a story that others would tell and weep about for years to come. It made me sad to think about it; on the other hand it would be a good story and it was, it seemed, far better and more interesting to die young by polar bear attack in the Arctic than of respectable, stultifying old age, common where I was currently living.
The problem with the sort of good fortune I actually experienced, however, is that it gave me absolutely no training for getting older.

For example, as recently a year ago I was twice challenged by TSA security guards over not taking off my shoes – one of the few privileges you earn at the age of 75.

But in the past few months, my delusion has suffered a number of setbacks, albeit mostly cultural rather than physical. For example it dawned on me that I had outlived three generations of men in my family except for one uncle and one grandfather. And since the latter never drank and was senior warden of his church, I felt he didn’t count.

Then there were the little things. The lack of chronological challenges at the airport, occasional gratuitous assistance getting my coat on, asking a younger guy to crawl under that table for something I was too arthritic to reach, restaurant servers sardonically calling me “young man,” my daughter-in-law pointing out the rocking chairs at the miniature golf course where she and my son had taken their young boy, and - on a snowy day at the Bow Street Market - when the cashier actually offering to take my bags out to my car. Sixty years of gym workouts had come to this.

It seemed like old times have finally caught up with me.

But then I remembered that after leaving my four year old grandson to handle miniature golf by himself, we had for several days visited two old friends – one with deeply serious cancer and the other in home hospice care due to a failing heart. It had brought to mind Peter Ustinov’s thought that the trouble with middle-aged people is that they're too far away from either of the most important mysteries of life: birth and death. And I had met them both just a few days apart.

One morning the husband with the heart collapse and I sat for nearly an hour comfortably discussing matters such as his concern that he had only lately questioned his doubts about heaven and its landlord. I told him that if there actually was a heaven and God denied him entry just because he hadn’t believed in it then God was a shit head. I quickly pointed to the Pope’s more eloquent remarks along the same lines. Although I couldn’t remember the exact words at the time, the Pope recently wrote the editor of the Spanish La Repubblica in response to his query:

“You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience.”

Our wives, and friends who dropped by, thought it funny that an atheist should consult a seventh day agnostic on such issues but we had delved into all sorts of more immediate matters over the years and as my friend’s air machine bumbled along it seem natural that we should as well.


I wasn’t going to say anything about all this until I remembered something I had noted a long time ago, namely that one great thing about writing is that nothing in life short of death is so bad that you can’t at least get a good story out of it.

I promise, however, to try to avoid being one of those who describe their decline in excessive detail, complete with incomprehensible initials and latin words no healthy person understands. If you must ask about it, my last checkup was fine and there are no polar bears anywhere near where I live. And if something happens to me that is not interesting or funny, I won’t report it.

As for myself, I have come to think of becoming old as being like becoming a teen ager. No one really tells you how to do it, you make many mistakes, you annoy other people, and then it’s over.

My own ultimate model for this time in life is Frank Skeffington, the political boss hero of The Last Hurrah. In the last scene he lies on his deathbed as an unctuous Roger Sugrue intones, "Well, the one thing we all know is that if Frank had to do it all over again, he would have done it differently." Frank Skeffington raises himself from his bed, looks the guy in the eye and says, "Like hell I would," and dies happy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Happy birthday, Sam, whenever it was, and don't change a thing. Progressive Review is essential reading.

You're half of America's social democrat columnist corps. (William Greider is the other.) Every paragraph/column/book is a treasure.