A couple months ago on our way to get haircuts for Orson and me the family stopped for dinner at White Castle since it’s right next door to the salon. When I walked in I saw a really old man sitting at a table, just watching people. He observed us for a while and then he made a few references about how nice our family was and about how lucky I was. I agreed, fleshing out my response with a bit of small talk. He hung around for a while and then came up to us again and started a short conversation. He talked about fighting in World War II, about bombing Germans and lying about his age to join the army.
He told us again how lucky we were, how we had everything. Then he said “I’ve lost everything”. Traci made a empathetic gesture but I wasn’t sure what to say. I was deeply affected. We spoke a bit more and then he strolled around the store for a ten minutes or so, going outside to smoke once or twice before he left.
It made me think about getting old, about how terrible it can be. I’m assuming that this guy’s wife is dead, maybe even his children. World War II ended over 60 years ago, so this guy was in his late seventies at least. His parents are dead, his friends are dead, his wife is probably dead, and if his kids weren’t dead (if he had any) they’d be in their fifties most likely, living their own lives with their own adult children (and maybe grandchildren). ‘I’ve lost everything’, he said. I used to think there was no such thing as living too long. I’m not so sure now, the older I get. I wonder what the point is once everyone else is gone. I’d imagine it can help to have a purpose, something that can provide a reason to keep going even when everyone else is gone. Shows how important our relationships are. Think about all your friends being dead, or your spouse and possibly your children. Imagine a memory stream spanning back 70 or 80 years; imagine looking at old photographs from the days when you had everything. Now all that’s left is photographs, images of dead people staring back at you, smiling at the camera, blissfully unaware of what the future held.
Sometimes I think a long life might be torture. Though I surely don’t want to die I wonder if, at some point, it’s better to be as George Mallory put it, “in the good company of the dead”.
Every moment we have right now we have to fully live. There might be an afterlife, but no one living will ever know, so making the most of our time makes the most sense. One day I very well could be there, with everything I ever had forever gone. I want to at least have the small comfort that I got all I could while I could. Maybe the best we can hope for is to die without regret.
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