He was seventy-five at the time, and contemporary social scientists might prefer Casey’s line delivered at eighty-five now, for accuracy, but the point remains. My elder old-maid cousin Jean Webster and her unexpected, late-arriving Brit husband, Capel Hanbury. Chloë Sevigny in “Trees Lounge.” Gail Collins on a good day.We geezers carry about a bulging directory of dead husbands or wives, children, parents, lovers, brothers and sisters, dentists and shrinks, office sidekicks, summer neighbors, classmates, and bosses, all once entirely familiar to us and seen as part of the safe landscape of the day. The surprise, for me, is that the accruing weight of these departures doesn’t bury us, and that even the pain of an almost unbearable loss gives way quite quickly to something more distant but still stubbornly gleaming. Family ice-skating up near Harlem in the nineteen-eighties, with the Park employees, high on youth or weed, looping past us backward to show their smiles.The surgeon at Mass General who fixed up this PFO (a patent foramen ovale—I love to say it) was a Mexican-born character actor in beads and clogs, and a fervent admirer of Derek Jeter.Counting this procedure and the stents, plus a passing balloon angioplasty and two or three false alarms, I’ve become sort of a table potato, unalarmed by the X-ray cameras swooping eerily about just above my naked body in a darkened and icy operating room; there’s also a little TV screen up there that presents my heart as a pendant ragbag attached to tacky ribbons of veins and arteries. Nowadays, I pop a pink beta-blocker and a white statin at breakfast, along with several lesser pills, and head off to my human-wreckage gym, and it’s been a couple of years since the last showing. I messed it up playing football, eons ago, but can’t remember what went wrong there more recently.The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. Death terrified me then, because I had so many engagements.The enforced opposite—no dinner dates or coming attractions, no urgent business, no fun, no calls, no errands, no returned words or touches—left a blank that I could not light or furnish: a condition I recognized from childhood bad dreams and sudden awakenings. Death will get it on with me eventually, and stay much too long, and though I’m in no hurry about the meeting, I feel I know him almost too well by now.Well, not yet, not soon, or probably not, I would console myself, and that welcome but then tediously repeated postponement felt in time less like a threat than like a family obligation—tea with Aunt Molly in Montclair, someday soon but not now. A weariness about death exists in me and in us all in another way, as well, though we scarcely notice it.
Our dead are almost beyond counting and we want to herd them along, pen them up somewhere in order to keep them straight. Also the distant whoosh of a surfaced porpoise outside our night windows.I like to think of mine as fellow-voyagers crowded aboard the Île de France (the idea is swiped from “Outward Bound”). We elders—what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel?Here’s my father, still handsome in his tuxedo, lighting a Lucky Strike. —we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA—a transient ischemic attack?But cheer up: if I reverse things and cover my right eye, there you are, back again. Well, pretty great, unless I’ve forgotten to take a couple of Tylenols in the past four or five hours, in which case I’ve begun to feel some jagged little pains shooting down my left forearm and into the base of the thumb. Like many men and women my age, I get around with a couple of arterial stents that keep my heart chunking.If I take my hand away and look at you with both eyes, the empty hole disappears and you’re in 3-D, and actually looking pretty terrific today. I also sport a minute plastic seashell that clamps shut a congenital hole in my heart, discovered in my early eighties.