by Jake Block
“How many days has it been
Since I was born?
How many days until I die?
Do I know any ways
That I can make you laugh,
Or do I only know how to make you cry?”
— Stranger in a Strange Land (Leon Russell)
The life expectancy for those living in the U.S. in 2019 was 78.87 years, a 0.08% increase from 2018.
I turned 71 this year, and entered what I’ve always called “the blink out decade.” While it’s a fact that we can die at any age, it seems, at least lately, that everyone around me is checking out in their 70s. Perhaps one can catch a break and survive to 78 or 79 years, and certainly there are a few that will continue living into their eighties, nineties and even over 100 years. It’s a reminder, though. We can’t afford to waste time at any age, but that’s especially important when one reaches seventy years of age and beyond.
Knowing that you could “blink out” at any time terrifies most people. They don’t want to think of life in finite terms, so they invent elaborate scenarios to believe in, so that they will go on beyond the borders of what we call “life.” They invent rules that they should live by that will insure their survival, and gods that they can pray to and sacrifice to, in hope of tipping the scales in their favor, making them too valuable to just allow to waste into nothingness. The ancient Egyptians went so far as to create a vast array of gods and an entire world for them to live in that was unseen by those who were living, but guaranteed to be there after death, providing that their souls were lighter than a feather in purity. To concretize that belief, they rebuilt the world of their gods on earth in the form of massive temples and complexes that the living could see and touch. The invisible gods resided in these complexes, served by priests and priestesses, who the people supported in order to further still their need to believe and survive.
The Pharaohs of Egypt spent their lives planning and executing the construction of elaborate tombs to hold their earthly remains in mummified form, tombs filled with every conceivable thing that they would need to sustain them in the afterlife. They prayed that when Anubis weighed their heart against the feather of Maat, it should be found pure and they would be allowed to proceed to the afterlife, for if it was not, the fearsome Ammit, with the body of a lion and the head of the dreaded Nile crocodile would devour it, and send the Pharaoh into oblivion forever. The desperation of belief.
Reality has to come into the mix in that whatever belief one holds, that’s all it is. Their belief might be fervent, but fervency is simply a desperate grip on hope. One thing that can be guaranteed with a high degree of certainty is that death is indeed real and we all must, at some time, die. Granted, I might have a different outlook on death, having had a mortician for a father, but the concept of death holds no fear for me. That’s not to say that I’m a totally fatalistic wretch, looking for death to come at any minute and resigned to the idea that life has no meaning when death is the inevitable end. One must make use of the life they are given, else, why have it at all?
Certainly we all should drain the last ounce of joy from life for as long as we can, and you can bet the farm that I’m in that mode myself. As I get older, I tend to have less patience with the willfully ignorant and the shit disturbers and distance myself from their like a little more each year. “They harsh my mellow,” as we used to say in those hippy-dippy 60’s. But also, I’m taking care of the business of life and living so that when and if I “blink out,” I won’t be leaving a mess for someone else to clean up regarding my finance and the distribution of my personal possessions.
Developing some disease for which there is no cure, but there are treatments has an advantage, in so much as there is a timeline of progression until that fateful day when your doctor sits you down in a chair in front of his desk and says, “I think it’s time that you take that last vacation and then settle your affairs, because there’s not much else that medicine can do for you.” It’s a blessing that many more don’t receive as they “blink out” from heart attacks, strokes, accidents, dying anonymously while homeless, or warehoused in some of the over crowded and under staffed nursing homes.
Now this isn’t some plea to pity the poor “have nots” of the world, simply an illustration of the difference between those of us who have the chance to have some control of our lives, vs those whose lives are under control. You don’t need some sinister overlord to control your life, and even if there was one, he could hardly do a better job than nature. His inflictions of pain and deprivation might me more immediate, but the banality of his attacks is common enough to be ignorable. Nature gives us the big bang, in the form of mass casualties and death from natural disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes, famines and plagues that make its current pandemic look like a headache. If you’re in the path of the Tsunami, you’re screwed. If you live on the other side of the world, watching it live on TV, not so much.
Living with the knowledge that by the luck of our birth in nation that has it better than others, we should also keep in the back of our minds that, as this pandemic has made painfully evident, we’re just one virus away from being as much in harm’s way as any poor denizen of any third world country, anywhere in the world. “Blinking out” is a real and present danger in this time, even for those who would normally be considered healthy, and having a better than average chance of survival. So, in the back of my mind, the long forgotten “Boy Scout” in me whispers, “Be Prepared.” We simply can’t leave of personal affairs to others., because even as you fall victim to the insidious nature of a virus, they could too.
I have a fireproof lock box in my home that if, by accident or disease, I “blink out,” my next of kin can open and find copies of various legal documents from the deeds to my houses, to insurance information, my Last Will and Testament, information on my prepaid cremation and disposal, Veteran’s information, my social security card, and other documents they will need to handle my estate. There is also about $5000 cash for any expenses they might have along the way, and a letter to my Lawyer releasing an additional sum of money once those tasks are completed. Some people might find this kind of preparedness a bit maudlin and fatalistic, but for me, it’s simply preparedness on a level commensurate to the event. Death for me is just “another damned thing you gotta do,” but my demise need not be a hassle for the one who’ll have to settle my estate.
Given the choice of a slow slide to my death in some nursing home or blinking out by a disease or, if necessary, by my own hand, I would always choose blinking out. Like any other tedious task, dying is best done quickly, efficiently and with a minimum of cleanup needed!