My wife’s grandmother was born in 1916, during World War I, and she is a few weeks shy of her 102nd birthday. She came down with the flu about ten days ago and was very sick. The doctor came over to the house and told Yasuko’s family to start making arrangements. The flu, he advised, was absolutely unforgiving amongst centenarians, and there was exactly zero chance that she would have the physical reserves to fight it off.
Her name is Harue, which means “spring,” because that’s when she was born. A few days went by and Harue didn’t die, so the doctor came by to see what was up. “She seems to be fine,” the family said.
The doctor was perplexed. “Never seen anything like it,” he said. “She is tough.”
So the family went back to their routine of taking care of Harue, shuttling her to the senior citizens’ day-out facility, and to the doctor and whatnot. Harue’s demise has been predicted many times, and it could come tomorrow, but so far she has outlived all of her contemporaries, and a whole bunch of her juniors. One hundred and two years is so long a time to live that it doesn’t even make any sense.
Harue is not in very good health if you mean cognizant of what’s going on around her, but she’s in very good health if you mean “alive and kicking.” She has had a very hard life and has lived through things that killed hundreds of millions of people. World wars, plural, famine, pestilence, and of course the meatgrinder of time. And no matter how much longer she lives, her ability to interact with the world around her is greatly, greatly circumscribed, to put it mildly.
All of this got my wife and I to talking about longevity. I’ve never looked up my death date, but I have heard that the longer your relatives live, the longer you will live. So we snuggled up in bed and did some death research. What we found wasn’t very cuddly, at least for me. Yasuko is going to peg out somewhere between 96 and 101. My expiration date is much, much sooner: The longest I can expect to get out of this meatbag is another thirty-seven years. Ninety-one is my max. A more realistic number is in the low 80’s.
Thirty-seven years. That’s like, nothing. And if it turns out to be more like twenty-seven, then double wow. That’s like, tomorrow.
Of all the death calculators online, the best one is done by the Aussies, because their premise for the calculator isn’t how much time you have left, but what in the hell are you going to do with what remains? The death calculator, as they see it, should be used as a life calculator. Your hand is on the throttle. Are you going to gently turn it to get as much mileage as you can, or twist the dogdamned thing off?
With the covers pulled up around my chin I thought about all the dead people I know, the great majority of whom are nominally alive. They’ve already scented the stench of the grave and they don’t like it, so all of their daily choices are designed to prolong the number of days that they get to spend figuring out how to prolong the number of days.
WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING, AND WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING HERE?
That, to me, seems to be the question.
Maybe a good cup of coffee would help
All of this happened on the heels of two books, one I just finished and one I just dove into. The first is a biography called “Stalin: Paradoxes of Power.” More about that in a later post, but let’s say that great histories should make you act. The other book, a birthmas gift from my son and daughter-in-law, is called “Das Wiener Kaffeehaus,” and it’s a series of vignettes by various great Austrian writers, selections about the deceased institution of the Viennese coffee house. Some of it is hilarious, much of it moving, all of it points to the things that have gone by and raises the question yet again.
I imagined myself on a drizzly February day, seated at the Cafe Hawelka, where I have sat many times, poring over a newspaper, making stupid notes in a notebook, sipping coffee to warm my brain enough to think but not enough to relax. I imagined shuttling between the bakery and the hostel, eating a big loaf of black bread smeared with butter, soaking in those things you can only absorb outside your daily ambit. I imagined the minutes, hours, days, blasting away like Speed Racer, the old one, time is Speed’s Mach 5, waiting for someone perhaps, but certainly not for me.
You know, it is a very thin line between imagining something and doing it. A good cup of coffee is worth traveling for, especially when it’s not really a cup of coffee you’re after. A familiar seat in an old cafe is worth seeking out, isn’t it?
Or is the real value in existence the actuarial calculation of death, toting up years to retirement, mulling over funds you’ll need in your dotage, researching the percentage chance of dying from whatever malady you fear most, obediently listening to the voice of reason that puts off the things that decay and turn to dust the longer you push them aside? Are any of those things really more valuable than a good book, cold rain on the cobbles, a warm cafe, and a hot cup of coffee?
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