The embers of an exhausted year—one more Christmas behind us—carry with them a familiar melancholy. The time is bittersweet, if not depressing, and I learned long ago to embrace this seasonal interlude with this thought in mind: The end of anything is hard.
Once we lapse into the habit of doing something a particular way, or thinking about something according to a particular set of pathologies—Covid 19, for instance, although the virus appears to be ebbing—the required readjustment to reality is bound to knock us back on our heels. And so we will continue to see healthy young men with their faces covered for a walk to the deli, and nervous drivers wearing masks while alone in their cars. We are loath to let go.
A while ago, as it became evident that most sectors of our society were conceding it was time to change our approach to this scourge, a friend admitted that she did not want the pandemic to be over. This is not a person who lives in a permanent marijuana miasma, ingesting Netflix and Uber Eats, but a professional woman of many accomplishments, living a spiritually centered life, yet still vulnerable enough—human enough—to long for what never again can be—the past—rather than summon energy for the uncertainty that lies ahead. But my friend deserves a pass. The pandemic coincided with a terminal diagnosis for one of her dearest, and its conclusion, in her mind, would only bring this fiercely loved relative closer to death.
As you’ve no doubt discerned by now—in this and perhaps other blogs of mine—I’m no threat to the reputation of philosophy. And without torturing thought and language to death, but substituting instead flesh and blood experience, I draw lessons from anecdotes about my life that uncover a deeper reality. So let me share another story with you.
I was a reckless teenager, adrift in my own marijuana miasma, bombing around in an old-mannish but nearly pristine Chevy Bel Air that my grandfather gave me. We hadn’t spoken for some time when I screwed up the courage one day to dial his number. He got on the phone and said, “Where have you been? We miss you.”
Driven by guilt (and the Bel Air), I headed for the house where he had raised his family. I found him on the enclosed porch, sitting on a glider—a vinyl-upholstered couch that rocked back and forth on stainless steel tracks. But the old guy was motionless, staring into the middle distance.
It was late in the afternoon, and the sun flooded through the porch windows. I was squinting. My grandfather got to his feet to lower a shade, but the cord snapped off as he pulled on it.
“It’s old,” he said, thumbing the frayed end that remained, quite useless, in his hand. “When you get old, you’re no good no more.”
I didn’t say anything, so he went on.
“Goombata Mike died today.”
Jeez, I thought, that’s a shame. I always liked Goombata Mike, with his brilliant white hair and blinding white dentures.
“He was my best friend.”
And then my grandfather started to cry. I wanted to be somewhere else, but there was no place to go. My own face wet with tears, I wrapped my arms around him and held him close, burly even in this weak moment.
You can probably guess where this is going, and even if you can’t, my grandfather sure knew. He was dead in two days, maybe three, ground down by seventy-five years-worth of gravity and disappointment; emphysema from digging coal out of the Pennsylvania mines as a boy; heart disease, too. He did build a business that supported three families, not bad for a guy with a sixth-grade education, but when he couldn’t work anymore there was nothing left to do. His final years were yawningly slow. He was bored. I don’t want to say bitter; I don’t think he was bitter, but the end of his life was hard. In a sad and clumsy way, he was grasping for a philosophical axiom in a piece of broken cord, aching for what once was. Approaching the end game—he didn’t have one—was a challenge he never anticipated.
The memory of that afternoon has haunted me ever since. I was 17 years old on that day. I’m 63 now. I inserted that scene, as closely as I could remember it (and strikingly similar to what you just read), into a meandering novel I wrote about gangsters that nobody has seen fit to publish. But maybe the character in my book apprehended the same bit of truth I’m reaching for here: If life doesn’t operate under any obligation to fizzle and ebb, it isn’t frozen in aspic either. It demands a series of recalibrations, a plan, an end game. Like my grandfather, I don’t have one.
And I’m afraid I have a bunch of healthy if not productive years left. I can’t spend them all at the racetrack, although I would like to. A farm in upstate New York, maybe. Well, not a farm-farm, which would require a great deal of labor, but a piece of land expansive enough for a couple of horses. Breed them and keep the fillies. Sell the colts. I shared this fantasy with an acquaintance. He laughed at me.
As the last embers of 2022 go out, and life’s longed-for perfection goes unrealized yet again, in these dreary hours it’s warming to recall that there were good times. We made our annual pilgrimage to Saratoga, and it was as much fun as it ever is, maybe more. I recently met a colleague for coffee in midtown, and it struck me that I didn’t hate being in New York. Not on that morning, anyway. I was a guest at two sumptuous weddings, and one of these unions has already yielded a beautiful baby girl. Life carries us onward. Ever onward. For auld lang syne, my dear . . . for auld lang syne.