Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The days are getting shorter and so am I. It’s a fact. I used to be six feet tall. Last month, at my doctor’s office, the nurse checked my height and told me I was five feet ten and a half inches. I just looked at her. There must be some mistake, I said. Maybe the measuring arm wasn’t at the proper angle. Maybe she hadn’t read it right. She smiled patiently. It’s because of gravity, she said. The disks in our spines get compressed over time. After the age of forty we lose about a half inch in height every decade. In other words, my diminished state wasn’t her fault; it was mine for having lived so long.
Hair loss, hearing loss, memory loss, and now this. I remembered a note I’d gotten recently from my friend Al. “Are you as spooked by the passage of time as I am?” he wrote. “To tell the truth, I don’t know why it’s not the number-one topic of conversation among people over sixty. The skids are greased, and down we slide.” So what now, Al? Do I rail at gravity or stand tall, take it like a man?
I dreamt that my wife, Norma, and I were in New York City, walking past the synagogue where I was bar mitzvahed in 1958. But now I was in my sixties, and my wife was no longer the dark-haired, twenty-seven-year-old shiksa I’d fallen in love with more than thirty years ago but a gray-haired woman in her fifties. My dead father made a cameo appearance to remind me to always be polite: to offer Norma my arm when we crossed the street, to ask for permission before ripping off her dress. What a perfect gentleman I was as she and I made love on the dusty floor of an abandoned warehouse in the city of my birth. As the dream ended, I begged Norma not to leave. She said, “Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere.” And I said, “But yesterday is already gone.”
There’s a cat in the room. There’s a man in the room. How about God? Is God in the room? I hear a bird singing. I can’t see the bird from where I’m sitting, but I know it’s close by. How close is God to me this morning? Is it delusional to think that God is here, too? That this, too, is God’s address? That I don’t have to read another spiritual book or hitchhike from one end of my mind to the other in order to find the next clue to God’s whereabouts?
If my father were still alive, today would be his ninety-eighth birthday. Ninety-eight, Dad! Imagine being around in the year 2012! You’d still be a Yankees fan, I assume, and vote for the Democrats, and smoke cigars, and find plenty to argue with me about. We argued a lot when I was in my twenties, especially after I walked away from my job as a newspaper reporter and started a ragtag magazine. To you, the bizarre turn my life had taken made no sense. I looked like a hippie, talked like a hippie, used my laminated college degrees as cutting boards, and no longer wore a wristwatch because, as I tried to explain, LSD had made me understand the absolute relativity of time. Meanwhile you were running out of time. Nine months after I stood on a street in North Carolina selling the first issue of The Sun, you lost your “battle with cancer,” as people say, though to me it always seemed like a distinctly unfair fight — in one corner, an emaciated man with a terminal diagnosis; in the other, the heavyweight champion of the underworld, with more ways to fuck you up than any mortal enemy could devise. Two weeks after you turned sixty, you stopped breathing. When I walked into your hospital room and saw your lifeless body, my breath caught in my throat. I was twenty-nine and couldn’t imagine a world without you.
I broke my favorite coffee mug this morning. While I was washing it in the sink, it slipped from my hands and shattered. How could I have been so careless? O that lovely mug! Here one minute, lying in broken pieces the next. No long, lingering illness. No warning signs that something was awry. No chance to prepare for the day I’d no longer be able to reach for it, cup my hand around it, bring it to my lips. This is that day.
I’m still working on my book. I keep reminding myself it’s like everything else in life: I won’t get it completely right. Perhaps, once it’s published, I’ll imagine otherwise for a day or two, or for an entire self-delusional week. During that time the book and I will text each other throughout the day, call each other late at night, exchange exquisite gifts of appreciation: an expensive Montblanc pen for me (“So you can get started on your next book,” the book will whisper coyly); a custom-made bookcase for the book, big enough to hold a hundred copies of the leather-bound edition. (“Yes,” I’ll assure the book, “real leather.”) Oh, won’t we be happy, curled together on the sofa, my arms around the book, the book pressing itself against my pounding chest. Could anyone doubt we were made for each other? And I’ll actually believe that this love will last, that I really did get it right, that the critics will agree, and my dead ancestors will rise from their graves to get their complimentary copies, and Fresh Air’s Terry Gross will call, and so will my high-school principal, who never believed in me but is, amazingly, still alive and feels compelled to ask for my forgiveness. No problem, I’ll assure him. No problem, I’ll tell Terry, who wants to know if, during our on-air interview, I’d be willing to read a few of her favorite passages in my gravelly and oh-so-intimate voice, sitting there beside her, just the two of us.
My cat Zooey woke me at four this morning. But I’m not complaining. It’s cold and rainy outside. But I live in a house with central heat and a roof that doesn’t leak. At the end of March I’ll turn sixty-eight. But I’d rather be old than dead and cold. Who wants to be the corpse of a man who found something to complain about every day of his life: how much he weighed, how little he exercised, an alphabet with merely twenty-six letters, primitive computers that hadn’t yet been programmed to turn incoherent thoughts into unforgettable language that would stand the test of time? Yes, I’d rather be old than dead and cold. But when that’s no longer the choice I’m given, when it isn’t Zooey but Mr. Death who wakes me, I won’t complain if he mispronounces “Safransky.” Story of my life.