Old is not a four-letter word.

Old man

And neither is death.


When I was in my late twenties a woman much younger than I asked me how old I was. She was hot, I was horny and I was afraid my age would be a deal killer, so I dodged her question with a ridiculous answer I hoped she would laugh off: I told her I was 60.

At that time and for many years following, 60 was the edge of a cliff. I was ageless until 60, and after that I presumed myself to be dead. My vision somewhat matched the Beatles, who wondered “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?” Or, more recently, Ed Sheeran and Amy Wadge, whose song “Thinking Out Loud” pledges, “Darlin’ I will be lovin’ you, till we’re 70.”

What happens after 70?

Doesn’t matter; by then you’re as good as dead.

Ezekiel J. Emanuel, an oncologist and bioethicist, wrote recently in The Atlantic that he doesn’t want to live past 75. To a person already well past that expiration date, his pledge sounded an awful lot like, “I’m gonna quit smoking tomorrow.” Let’s check in with him 15 years from now to see how that plays out. He says he’s not talking about suicide, it’s just that he’s going to forgo treatment for any diseases that come along after his selected cutoff age. Well, maybe, maybe not.

His pledge reminded me of a conversation I had many years ago with a good friend shortly before she died of cancer. We were both in our forties, and she was grasping at every possible treatment straw, as seems to be usual. While a party was celebrating something inside my house, we sat in her car out in the driveway. Like Emanuel, I told her I’d always thought I would just forgo treatment and get it over with. She said, “I always thought that too, but the will to live is a powerful thing.”

Methinks none of us knows what we’re gonna do about death till we get there.

Death is not a popular conversation topic; I’ve noticed that over the years. I suppose it’s because people are frightened of the idea of just not being there anymore. It’s a hard pill to swallow after you’ve talked yourself into believing you exist.

I discovered my non-existence through many avenues, I suppose. I can’t really point to any one thing; it was just something that dawned on me one day: there’s a human body here, but insofar as “me” living in it and running it, that’s just an idea. It’s a functional idea, one that probably evolved with our species, but that doesn’t make it real.

My epiphany was that while the ideas are as real as anything can be, there’s no actual “me” having them. The person called “me” is just the accumulated behavioral attributes of this body. When people use the phrase “my body”, they’re getting it exactly backwards. You don’t own a body, you are the creation of a body: “Your” body owns the “you” that you think you are.

Once you get your head around that, it makes death kind of cool … without recourse to a Fantasy Island in the Sky. I get dismembered by a Saudi prince or get turned to hamburger from a hail of police gunfire or fall off a building or get run over by a logging truck or get drowned in a flood or even … let’s hope not … die in bed after “battling” cancer, it’s all same result, and the result is fine by me. Not like I suppose I’ll have a choice, but I’d prefer not to go partway and end up in a hospital bed. I’m looking for totality when the time comes: sayonara, and you carry on from here.

That seemed to be Dr. Emanuel’s point too, but whether either of us carries it through remains to be seen. In my case particularly, never discount the possibility that everything I say is bullshit. That’d be my attitude if I were reading this.

Anyway, where were we?

Oh yeah, there’s an added dimension that makes this even more interesting: when I die, the whole universe will die with me. This gets into what philosophers call “solipsism”, but the fact is there is no way to prove that any of what I believe exists actually does. Even this so-called “body” could be a figment of some cosmic imagination. This abuts on the recent trendy idea that the universe is nothing but a hologram from some other dimension. People with PhDs come up with shit like that, so it’s not completely off the wall.

In support of that theory, I offer what seems to me to be incontrovertible evidence: after I die there will be no nervous system entertaining the concepts of not only “me” but also my family, the planet Earth, the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy, the Local Group, or the billions of other galaxies clustered hither and yon. There will be no microcosm of atoms made up of protons and neutrons and electrons that are in turn made up of gluons and quarks that have flavors and colors among other things. No time, no Big Bang, no curvature of space-time. Once it’s dead, this nervous system will no longer harbor logic or mathematics, so even that will die. None of the stuff that seems obvious or axiomatic to this living body will exist any longer.

You can say all you want about how those things will outlast me, but I say, “Prove it.”

There is a sense in which each of us is a walking (or not) universe, and when we interact with each other it’s a case of universes touching.

Something to think about the next time you’re in line at the post office, and an old woman ahead of you is making up her mind about sheets of colorful, commemorative stamps including, as one possibility, Elvis Presley.

Once you bring up Elvis, it’s obvious you’re done, so thank you for sharing my insanity these few minutes. I now return you to your regularly scheduled life.

Nomadic writer, realist, voluntaryist, nudist, singer, drummer, harmonica and recorder player, composer, gadfly, runner, troublemaker, survivor so far.

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