At nine years old the arc of time had just begun to impinge upon my consciousness.
I remember having a distinct thought at that wonderful age. I was up in a tree at the edge of an island in Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, sun shining, waves lapping upon the rocky shoreline, a gentle breeze caressing a beautiful and sentient world.
How wonderful, I thought, to be nine years old. And, with the dawning intimation that it might not all last forever, “I wish I could be nine forever.”
Within that childlike reverie lay my first intimation of death, the startling premonition that everything I loved might one day disappear. Who might I be when I became old if I no longer remembered this wondrous day when I was a nine year old boy in love with a wondrous world?
So, on that day, I made a pact with my future self. That he pledge to remember me, to remember my particular thoughts on this particular day, and to forever cherish who he had once been regardless of who he might become.
As I write this I am now more than seven times those first nine years. Many moons have passed since then, and I have not always been mindful of the admonitions of my younger self. At times recalling this pledge served only as damning contrast to the plagues of teenage trauma, early adulthood, midlife crises – a reminder of lost innocence, an F on the report card of life. At other times it has returned as a long lost friend, a glimmer in darkness, redemption, revelation, crazy laughter, Eros, and agape.
I read once that the cells of the human body replace themselves in their entirety every seven years. At the age of 63 our physical selves have completed their ninth incarnation! New cells, eyes, livers, veins, hearts, lungs, ears, and bones. Yet, remarkably, all this stuff turns into the same you, guided by some unseen hand, populating the same physical structure with the stuff of existence, and housing what we perceive to be our continuous inner life, carrying us as one indivisible self from womb to grave.
And throughout this continuing physical transformation of our bodies we have an inner life that maintains a single identity over decades of living, recording experiences, acquiring knowledge, and developing rational thought processes so advanced that our brightest minds can envision the underlying structure of the physical universe of which we each of us is a unique and infinitesimally minute physical manifestation. It is all quite remarkable.
We cherish youth not only for what we saw so clearly then, but also for what we did not know. Reclaiming the lost innocence of our early selves is the stuff of art, novels, poetry. It energizes the lives of workingmen and women, musicians, priests, entrepreneurs, athletes, madmen, politicians, lovers, sinners and saints…all of us really. Our dreams drive us back to our beginnings, the miracle of our birth, the dawning of our consciousness…to a world where time had no beginning and life had no end.
Older is wiser they say. At nine I imagined I would be a different being when I became what I perceived then to be old. At 65 I experience myself to be that selfsame young boy who made a bargain – not forgotten! – with his future and older self. I know little about the transformation cells and atoms over time, but I can report with confidence that I am very much the same fellow who has been rambling about inside this sack of skin and bones and eyes and toes for as long as I can remember.
Of course, this is not the whole story. Older is wiser. The arc of time bends ever towards the setting sun. Ashes to ashes, the Bible sayeth, and dust to dust. “Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities,” spoke Robert Ingersoll in his famous 1879 oration at his brother’s grave. “We strive in vain to look beyond the heights.”
Yes, it is death, swirling about us in our evening time, that in our youth we knew not. It was but a distant relation then. “Your great aunt Matilda has died,” your mother says. You never met her; it doesn’t seem to matter. How sad to be old, you might have thought, and have to die.
Death never really strikes you as real until it strikes someone you love. I adored my grandfather. He visited us every Christmas after our grandmother died, holding court in our La-Z-Boy recliner in our TV room where he smoked big cigars. I lovingly crafted a standing ashtray in shop class to support his habit. I recall the exact moment Mom told me of his death. I was in the bathroom looking in the mirror. I watched the tears form. I was thirteen years old.
Amazingly, I did not attend a funeral until I was 32. Dad called to tell me his brother George had died. He wanted me to come, was buying me a ticket to Kansas.
My first funeral was both a shock and a revelation. After the service my uncle’s buddies, aged well beyond my current years, told funny stories, joked about who would be next. There was a potluck in the basement of the church. I came to mourn; they to celebrate a life well lived.
We know that we will die, but not when. My dad – ever a picture of health and vitality – went in a flash. My mom lingered for years, slowly losing her battle with dementia; she retained her smile, sense of humor, and beautiful serenity to the end.
The death of a parent is a mortal wound. When those who bore you are borne away, the final veil is lifted. You look ahead. There is no one before you who is next in line.
I go to more funerals now. There is no sufficient way to say goodbye. But try we must, and do. We celebrate and mourn. The community of the living reaches out to embrace the irreplaceable.
The dearly departed – you discover soon enough that they have not left. Those whom you have loved remained entwined in your very being. In some ways you are aware of them more now that they are gone than when they were here and you took them for granted. They continue to participate in the conversations you have with yourself. They continue to laugh at you when you do the very things they laughed at in the precious days you were there to laugh together. They offer advice. You listen now. There is whisper of eternity in this.
And, even in evening time, there are moments when time stops, the cares of the world dissemble, and your nine-year-old soul rides a rocket to the moon.
Bob Moses is the publisher of go60.us.