Don’t Want to Burn Out; Don’t Want To Fade Away

I don’t enjoy reminders of my age although it’s hard to miss the signs when I face the mirror every morning.  I certainly never used to keep my very own blood pressure monitor tucked behind my laptop on my desk just so I can check it every now and then for my entertainment.

I don’t feel as old as the calendar tells me that I am.  I have a few limitations on my physical activity, but most of them are mental limitations–fear of failure or injury.  Learning how to surf sounds like fun on some days.  On others days it sounds like an invitation to the emergency room.

I can’t seem to shake the tendonitis that I have in both hands which may hamper or end my days as a guitarist although that career was always teetering on a lack of talent and a certain laissez-faire attitude toward actually practicing.

But speaking of the guitar, I do still admire the skill of others and so last night when my wife and I were enjoying the warm evening at one of our local go-to restaurants, we were pleasantly surprised by the live music on the patio.  The artist was an older guy, probably our age, who looked like a refugee from the ’60’s. He was just a gentle soul with long, blonde hair who sang simple folk songs that all sounded as if they came right out of the playlist of my teenage years.  Every now and then he’d ramp up a cover of a song by Neil Young or Bob Dylan and rouse the friendly group who had hung out to listen to him through the end of his second set.

Toward the end of the evening he began playing a song I had never heard, but as I listened to the lyrics it felt as though the writer had ripped a page out of my life and thoughts over the past months. The guitarist told me after the show that the song was “If We Were Vampires” by Jason Isbell and that it had been voted 2018 Americana Song of the Year by someone.

The song is a reflection on growing old with someone special so as I sat listening to it with the girl I met when we were 16, the girl I didn’t begin dating until after high school, and the woman to whom I’ve been married for almost 45 years, the words were poignant (although they lose something without the music, I suspect):

It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever

Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone

Maybe we’ll get forty years together

But one day I’ll be gone

Or one day you’ll be gone

If we were vampires and death was a joke

We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke

And laugh at all the lovers and their plans

I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand

I don’t wake up and begin my day by dwelling on mortality.  I mostly think about how good that first cup of coffee is going to taste, and how I really need to get down to the shop and get new tires put on my car.  But I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t noticed that 65 is a big number, and that I’m increasingly aware of the very finite nature of life.

I always imagine I’ve got maybe 20 or so good years left and let’s face it, that’s a lot of years. But that number seems smaller when I realize I’ve already burned through three times as many plus a few.

The song concentrates on the relationship and how it has sustained the couple and it made me think how meaningless life might have been for me this past 40 years without the life I’ve had with Mary and about how I would not want to grow old alone:

Maybe time running out is a gift

I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift

And give you every second I can find

And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind

I actually like finding music that hits too close to home.  It’s nice to know that others think about these things.

It’s nicer still to hear her working in the room next door as I’m writing this.  And that she’ll be nearby when I fall asleep tonight.  And that hers will be the first face I see tomorrow morning and in the many mornings left to come.

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My Museum

On my most recent visit spring visit to Phoenix, Arizona to watch spring training baseball, I took a day off to visit the MIM (Musical Instrument Museum) which had been recommended to me repeatedly by two of my best friends.

I am not a great museum visitor.  If it says to plan to stay for three hours, I’m pretty sure I will be done in one.  It’s one of the substantial differences between my wife and I when it comes to travel is that she will go through EVERY room, and read EVERY card for every part of the exhibits.  This is not a criticism.  She likes to soak in all of the details and moves through the museum at a most leisurely pace.

I sort of cruise through and skim a lot of what I see unless or until something really catches my attention, and then I’ll read up on it more thoroughly.  On this particular day, I found two rooms that were terrific.  One exhibit, called “Dragons and Vines” was dedicated to the art of how elements like pearl, abalone and other substances are inlaid into the fretboard and body of guitars.  The technology,craftsmanship, and flights of imagination were incredible.  The second room was dedicated to individual artists worldwide featuring pictures, videos, instruments, and outfits that they wore on stage.  I think I spent over an hour in these two rooms alone. I had to go back into both rooms twice, just to be sure I hadn’t missed anything.

I spent about 10 minutes in the entire rest of the museum which featured a vast array of musical instruments from all over the world.  It was overwhelming, and I really didn’t care about the how or why the noisemakers of Sri Lanka were different that those from Serbia.  If I had read any of the info cards on the second floor, I would have forgotten anything I learned by the time I got back to my car.  It’s why I don’t spend the time reading up on all of the historical stuff.  I just don’t retain it. I leave museums with a few highlights in my mind and a general sense of if it met or exceeded my expectations going in.  In this case, the MIM absolutely did.  I loved the two rooms that I loved.  That was plenty for me.

Museums are like our archives of our civilizations, right?  Besides teaching us about who we are, we are trying to hold on to the good stuff so we don’t forget about it.

I’ve been thinking about that as my wife and I have been going through a continual purging process around the house.   It started when we had to move virtually everything out while we were having our floors re-done.  We have thrown away and given away boxes and bags full of clothing, books, furniture, kitchen supplies, you name it.  Going through the process made us look at everything, contemplate how long it had been since we used or even touched the item (we have lived in the same house for 36 years) and soon we had cleared whole shelves and emptied multiple storage boxes.

We’ve been trying to narrow the archive, our personal museum, down to the really important stuff–to the things that will bring us joy to look at and that will enrich the lives of whomever we decide to leave these things to in the future.

I keep thinking about what I wanted to leave behind to the people I love to remember me by.  Didn’t it make sense to start giving some of this stuff away now?  I’d rather give them a keepsake of some real or sentimental value now, while I can cogently say to them, “Here’s the story behind this object and why it’s so important to me, and I want you to have it because I know you’ll love and value it just as much as I have.”

Like, I have this wine opener, a simple but elegant design, that my dad gave to me when I was 21. We met up after work on the day I turned 21, and he took me out for my first official drink.  But as we were drinking in this divey little bar, he told me what he had REALLY wanted to do for me on my birthday.  He had planned to take me to a strip club when I turned 21.  Apparently, his father had done this with him on his 21st as kind of a rite of passage thing, to expose him to the “world of men” and show him it was no big thing.  He wanted to continue that little tradition with his son, but my mom quashed his plan, so we had to settle for a drink together.  I kind of wish he had thrown caution to the wind and that we had had that moment together doing something a little salacious, just me and him.  Even though we didn’t, I appreciated that his heart was in the right place.

The fact that I have managed to hold on to this token for over 40 years makes it valuable along with the memories it holds.  My daughter Emily, who enjoys an occasional glass of wine recently celebrated her 30th birthday.  I gave her the opener with a letter explaining its history and significance to me.  I knew that she would like the thought that the gift was from both me and her Grandpa Jack.

So, as I go through every box and crate, I take a hard look at what is still stuck in our own personal museum and think about the people I love and wonder if they might like this object or that book, dedicated especially to them.  It’s easy to accumulate a lot over nearly 40 years and sometimes so much harder to begin to let it go.

Shakespeare Sundays: The Readiness Is All

I’ve worked hard about not going all English teacher on all of you, my faithful 15 readers, but part of me has wanted to bring a little structure to the blog to keep me writing on at least a weekly basis.  Let’s see how this goes. I’d like to bring you a passage from Shakespeare on the weekends that we can talk about.  I’ll share what I can, and please feel free to add your comments.

“Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special

providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,

’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be

now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the

readiness is all.”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

I taught this play for years but always struggled with this passage syntactically. In Act V, Hamlet is about to go into a “friendly” fencing match against Laertes, a man with a grudge, since it was Hamlet who caused his father’s death.  Hamlet’s best friend, Horatio, cautions Hamlet to withdraw from the match if he has any misgivings.

Above is Hamlet’s reply. I’ve always interpreted it as kind of an existential statement.  “It” seems to be his death.  If he is to die now, that just means he won’t be dying in the future (“tis not to come”), but if he isn’t meant to die in the future, he is meant to die now.  He reassures us that no matter what, he knows that he will die, like all of us (“if it be not now, yet it will come”). I’m thinking the actor would have to hammer that last WILL.  Death is inevitable, “the readiness is all.”

I think about this passage a lot.  I admire Hamlet’s resignation to the truth of the moment.  I think about mortality often.  I can say with some certainty that I won’t see the year 2043.   I don’t expect to see 90.  Waldron men do pretty well getting into their eighties, so 2038 is certainly reachable.  That gives me about 20 more years to do whatever I might want to, to see what I still would like to see.  Sounds like a lot, except for when it is your last 20 years, when you’ve already seen 20 years go by three times.

I don’t think of it as being sad or morbid.  It just is.  As Seth Avett says in his song The Perfect Space:

I wanna grow old without the pain,/Give my body back to the earth and not complain.

My life has been good.  I suspect it will continue to be so for a while, but if “the readiness is all” then I’m ready.

Mortality: It’ll Get You Every Time

momdad

Earlier, I mentioned my mom’s dementia and failing health. Just recently, the bout of pneumonia that she suffered was like a body blow to her already compromised immune system and since she has returned to the board-and-care home, whimsically named “Raquel’s Rose Garden” after the administrator’s daughter, she has remained in a state of semi-consciousness.

Her condition led me to enroll her in a hospice program so that she could receive all of her medical attention in the home along with all of the other services hospice supplies. Those of you that have had experience with hospice know how incredibly helpful it can be. I suddenly felt that I no longer had sole responsibility for every medical decision, but instead was a part of a team that was going to do everything that we could to keep my mother comfortable through her final days.

Now that we are in the system, I wonder why I waited so long. However, their glossy handbook told me why right off the bat. Early on, it reassured me that, “Often, hospice is not started soon enough because people consider it a “last resort.” Sometimes a physician, patient or family member might resist a hospice referral because they think it means they are surrendering and there is no hope. Hospice is not about giving up.” Dang. Wish I’d read that sooner.

This was exactly my dilemma as I considered if this was an appropriate move. I felt like I was calling it quits as far as my own responsibility and somehow doing her a disservice. I know better now.   I met with the doctor on Saturday morning and, with all of the proper disclaimers and qualifications, she suggested that my mom probably has no more than a month to live.

My mom is 92. She was married for over 60 years with a wonderful man, had three pretty great kids, five grandchildren, and a career as an RN. She has had a good life.

When I would come home depressed from my nearly daily visits to see her at Raquel’s over the past 3 ½ years, my wife did not understand my reaction. She thought it was a matter of my having unrealistic expectations, that every day I went to visit thinking, “she’ll be better today.”

The opposite was true. Every visit meant watching a loved one in decline. There were no good days, at least not in my mind. Every day was a step in the direction that has led to where we are today. The utter inevitability was not only depressing to watch, it reminded me of my own mortality, of how I was essentially on that same path. Depressing I know, but continued exposure to all of this got me thinking this way.

I started the grieving process long ago, but my reactions now are complex and confusing even to me. In our time at Raquel’s I’ve been through the death of three residents. Each one delivers a shock to the house. Most of the caregivers have been with my mom the entire time and the administrator and his wife are both kind and attentive to her. There are only two other residents right now and the three of them have been together for years. Even the hospice nurse has attended other patients and is well known to every one.

I worry about all of them because I know they are already feeling bad about losing my mom. I know that my grieving will be quiet and private, but I’m happy to know there will be others to share the pain with. I am better at being a source of comfort than I am at accepting the comfort of others.

It’s just tough having watched someone, for over three years, journey towards death in exactly the way we all hope to avoid.