July 8, 1999
Number Our Days ... Slowly
I used to play this math game in my head when I was a kid. I'd sit on the little grassy hillside overlooking the jungle gym and kickball games during recess and speculate about the year in which I would die.
"Born in '61," I'd hum to myself, "and if I died when I'm 30 ..."--which seemed to be more time than I could possibly know what to do with -- "then the year 1991 would be my last." I considered other possibilities, rolled their futuristic digits over in my mind, visualized their happenstance symmetries --"2002? ... 2020? ... 2040?"
Did this make me a morbid kid? Not really, because it all seemed so theoretical; those years were as distant as the death of the Sun. Only one number bothered me --2061. That was a concrete 100 years and I was pretty sure I wouldn't make it that far. I reflected on all the children who would be alive then, maybe even fortunate enough to be sitting on this very grassy hillside contemplating the year of their deaths, and sighed, wow, lucky them. Unlucky me.
The dreaded year for me now is 2009, a lesser death, when my first son will leave my house for college, or adventure, probably with me clinging to his backpack. As for forethought of my own demise, I don't really think about the numerical year anymore, but how old my kids will be. This sober exercise sounds like this: "Let's see, if I'm 85 when I pass on, Amit will be 55, Aviv 52. If I'm 130, that'll make Amit 100 and Aviv 97. It'll be okay. They'll get over it. Now, if I'm 180 ..."
Different game, same trick. To think of my little boy, with his frayed shoelaces and Pokémon breathlessness, even at 45? It's as distant as the death of the sun.
I can already hear my Buddhist friends all over me for this. What's all this projection forward? Why am I not living in the present? And worse, if I'm going to mentally live in the future, can't I find something more fun to do than die?
But being Jewish is to be bombarded by time-by seasons, weeks, history. An awake Buddhist walks in the timeless present. But an awake Jew stands in the unquiet crossfire of past and future-bloodflow and revelation from behind, the dream of global shalom bayit shimmering before our weary eyes. We measure our days collectively, and, as I keep hearing from my friends, privately, as well.
I suppose it's my age and the age of my pals, but the subject keeps coming up. We each run a personalized calculus in our heads. One friend recently confessed to me that he was terrified of turning 58 because his father dropped dead of a heart attack at that age; that year hangs before him like a noose. Another recoils at the prospect of turning 60, when she believes her attractiveness will be at an end (she is wrong). My baby sister who just turned 35 exclaimed "I'm practically 40!" For my adopted friend, who wonders what genetic time bombs he carries, every square on his calendar is a bed of nails.
On our most lonely foothold, we shrink the trackless journey of life into a narrowing homestretch.
And so we measure our days against the life spans of our parents, against the durations of our heroes. ("When Mozart was my age," Tom Lehrer famously said, "he'd already been dead for three years.") We weigh the years against our dreamed accomplishments. Nevertheless, our individual prognostications fade under the crescendo of medicine's pushy tic-toc. Like dutiful schoolchildren, we begin filing in as we hit 40, informed that our bodies are designed like old Chevys, obsolescent by nefarious plan. Tic Toc. Got to get the prostate checked at 40, tic-tic-the colon at 50 - toc-toc-double up on the heart-scan schedule. Ding!
Whatever our private heroics, our days get measured in blips and beeps, drips and samples.
Which brings me back to my old grassy hillside. One recent morning, I called to my 8-year-old to hurry it up for school. "Life is short!" I yelled! He appeared around the doorway with his pack on his back and a quizzical look on his face. "No it isn't," he said.
That stopped me short. I tried to remember what that felt like. For him, life is an open field, all clover and high grass curving around the broad hip of the earth toward an ever-retreating horizon. But for me and my prostate-test taking pals, it stubbornly presents itself as an obstacle course littered with rising rubber gloves and monitors, and a ribbon at the finish line, fashioned from piano wire, strung neck high.
My days of feeling immortal are long gone. Do I feel strong? Yes. Healthy? Totally. Vital? Sure. Maybe it's resignation, maybe wisdom (are they separable?), but I'm quite content to go with Rav Heschel on this one when he wrote, "Eternity is not perpetual future but perpetual presence." It resides not so much in the hereafter but in (and I think the Buddhists wish they came up with this one first), "the herenow."
And who better to instruct me on investing my eternity in this fleeting hour, than my 5-year-old? It had been a long, wonderful day of friends, beach, Indian food and stories, and I was tucking him in.
"So," I said, wanting to impress the day's joy into his memory so he'll support me when I'm old, "was today a good day to be alive?"
He thought hard.
"Well," he drawled in his habitual deliberation, "it wasn't a good day to be dead."
Adam Gilad is a dad, a husband and, in the minutes left over, a writer.
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