My father looks confused more than anything else.
At age 92 entropy and exhaustion will catch up to you. Two years ago he could do anything a 70-year old could do, just a few months ago he could get on an airplane. Somewhere in that period, it seemed to me at least, he kind of stopped caring, that the cumulative impact of 92 years on the Blue Planet just weighed too much.
I’ve seen it before with my grandparents (especially with my mother’s mother, who was the Last Nonni Standing). I would watch them on holidays or other occasions when the larger family was together. The kids would play with kids, teens would join in their circle of loathing and eye rolling, parents would talk about work and cars. Grandparents sat on the edge, mostly watching. I thought it was the language barrier — that after fifty or sixty years English had never quite taken hold and the constant racket of a world full of movies and Pong was just too much for people who were born into a society that didn’t even have radios.
But that wasn’t it. They had simply been moved by age and infirmity out of the flow of Everyday. While they were in their 60s and even 70s they could shop and cook and sort of read the American newspapers (the recounting of articles was sometimes not quite right. I learned I had to check). It had been a while since they’d had jobs, seeing and learning new things daily. At some point the tiredness made it too difficult to keep up with the foreignness — and that had nothing to do with living in a country other than the one in which they’d started. They found other goals to keep them going, say, waiting for great grandchildren. At some point that was no longer enough, they were other people’s doings. The grandkids were settled and raising their own families. The oldest generation decided they were done. After that it was just a matter of clock ticks.
Physicists, who I don’t really understand, will tell you that time as we think of it doesn’t exist. They somehow multiply and divide fractions — fractions comprising letters rather than numbers, even letters to the second and third power — and figure out what happens to two people standing on different sides of the universe at the same moment. One guy takes a step, the second hand moves once. But the fractions and letters and powers say that the moving man isn’t lined up one second away from the other. He’s something like two hundred years away.
Which doesn’t mean that time isn’t real, it just means we created it to put changes into a linear order. What time is, at least some of these physicists say, is the way we measure entropy — things falling apart. This is somehow connected to the Big Bang and the continual expansion of the universe. We frequently hear people say things like “I feel the same as when I was eighteen.” Well, of course they do. The crossing off of days on a calendar doesn’t match the rate at which their bodies are changing or, more precisely, falling to pieces. How else would one explain two forty-year-olds, one of whom is youthful and the other enfeebled? By measurement of time their bodies should “age” at the same rate, but they don’t. Some of us crumble more quickly than others.
When my father was seventy-nine he was found to have cancer at the junction of the stomach and esophagus. Doctors chopped out about a third of the former and the bottom part of the latter. Then they yanked what was left of the stomach up to what was left of the esophagus and tied them together. A year or two later he was playing tennis again. He didn’t stop playing for another eight years, until he lost a portion of his eyesight to what they call macular degeneration — essentially a black hole In his field of vision. The hole took away tennis — he couldn’t see the ball coming at him. More important, it also seemed to take away his desire to paint.
My dad has been an artist his whole life and his best work is what he did most recently – large, colorful abstracts of what look like balls of energy hovering like barbed sunsets over a suggestion of land. But when the macular degen came the painting stopped. For Father’s Day in 2011 I bought him a blank canvass, hoping it would generate interest to get back to work. It’s still blank.
His body had stopped holding itself together. It didn’t matter how “old” he was, what mattered was that he couldn’t do what he enjoyed. He slowed down. He moved to the periphery as his parents had before him, and as you and I will should we not get hit by an even worse fate.
The kids chatter, their parents complain about work and war. The oldest chime in when everyone else pauses to take a breath.
He fell last week, in Florida, where it likely happens enough that it sounds to Charon like he lives under a percussion section. All reports indicated that dad was at the gate we all eventually reach. I flew down. He seems to improve by the day, I think spurred by my mother’s threat of a feeding tube and nursing home. He’s showing the kind of fight I hadn’t seen from him in two years.
But there’s the look of confusion. His brain is strong and sharp and when he has his energy he can converse, more each day. He may stick around a while, which would be very lucky for us all. But his eyes ask how the hell he got there, and why. How many times have you asked yourself what our time here is about, who put us on the earth and whether it’s one of many worlds or one big self-referring circle? And as we reach the end, when our bodies give in to entropy or universe expansion or whatever, we still don’t know. We realize that we will never know. That’s a crueler fate than if there’s only oblivion on the Other Side. Oblivion is…nothing. You can’t even be disappointed by it. But the unanswered question — what was this all about? — torments us up until the last seconds.