Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about getting older. My 52 is still considered “youthful,” not just by other 52-year-olds but by a population that views the world through Botox-colored glasses. But the truth is, I’m not young.
I am a woman who will not much longer have the awesome power to create life, whose bones are disrespectfully noisy when she bends, who sees the filigree of age traced delicately around her eyes. And I am also a woman who lost her own mother this August, which puts me next in line for a date with (I hope) the angels, if there is any logic to the life cycle.
But of course, there is no logic. My father died of cancer at 43, a brutal death that shook the foundations of my belief in God (only temporarily, as it turns out.) My mother, on the other hand, lived a splendid life until the last few months when her body shut down, folded into itself, and to eternity. The fact that the final days of her 75th year were hard ones does nothing to diminish the magnificence of her recent past and the riches she gave to everyone who knew her.
That’s probably why I was so angered by the article that appeared in The Atlantic last month entitled Why I Hope to die at 75. Written by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel [brother of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel], an outspoken supporter of the type of rationed care that figures prominently in the Affordable Care Act, the admittedly smart and savvy medical pundit explained why he wanted to walk away from life’s poker table with a fabulous hand of cards. The only way to do that, he argued, was to depart this life at the age of 75.
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I tried to put on my lawyer’s hat and consider his arguments with analytical sangfroid. He wasn’t really calling for us to round up the elders and feed them all spiked Geritol a la Jim Jones of the People’s Temple. He made very clear that the key word here was “choice” and that he was simply suggesting that a pre-determined expiration date was preferable to aging. I am also glad that he came right out and said he was against euthanasia and assisted suicide even though this undermines his argument that we all have the right to choose the moment and manner of our curtain call.
In other words, the essay was not, as some argue, a manifesto for doing away with the old folk.
It was much worse. Emanuel was essentially telling those whose corporeal Lamborghinis were turning into used Honda Civics that they should do the honorable thing and leave of their own free will because they were destined to become burdens on our narcissistic society.
Emanuel observes that “living too long is...a loss...it robs us of our creativity, and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.”
It’s the last line that summons the blood to my eyes. While my mother suffered during her last days, I never saw her as anything other than the most beautiful creature on Earth. And now that she’s gone, I remember her passion and wit, her style and sardonic view of life, her joy in little things like the first chrysanthemums of autumn and in things of infinite grandeur like her grandson’s smile. Emanuel’s vision of humanity is starved and stingy if he truly believes that we are only capable of grieving in reflection.
This whole idea that we should just do the right thing by society and spare our loved ones the discomfort of seeing us physically or deteriorate was shown to be a bitter and cruel sham by Pope John Paul II, who did not hide away from our eyes in his final days but, rather, gave us the incomparable gift of watching him die with grace. Just as the beginning of life can be messy, so can its end. And yet, the infant gulping for his first breaths and the elderly woman grasping for her last are sublime examples of this precious gift we hold.
When I was in high school, I spent a whole year translating Cicero. In his rumination on old age he observes “But ye gods, what is there in human nature that lives so long?...naught remains but the fruit of good and virtuous deeds...hours and days and months and years go by, the past returns no more, and what is to be we cannot know. But whatever time given us in which to live we should there with be content.”
And that is why no one will be studying Dr. Emanuel 2,000 years from now.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.
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