There are few things that human beings know with absolute certainty, but one truth that we can say in a variety of ways is: Everyone dies. No one has gotten off this earth alive. Death will come to all of us, you, me, and everyone we know. That about covers it!
I’m not fond of death, as I’ve noticed that everyone who dies didn’t want to die. Another sad fact is that everyone who dies leaves behind a lot of very sad people.
Perhaps we are not prepared to die, or accept death is because death comes too soon. If life didn’t seem so short, perhaps we would be more understanding of leaving life on this earth.
Who will say that they have enough time to accomplish all they want or need to accomplish? Lately I’ve found myself wishing that a normal life span could be at least 200 years! What couldn’t we do with 200 years? That would give us 100 years to learn something, gain some wisdom, another 50 to work and do some good for the rest of the world, and perhaps the last 50 to kick back and do the things we most enjoy. Another big blessing would be to have the chance to meet our great grandparents and great great grandparents and great great great grandparents. I do a lot of research on my family and gosh, those folks that came before me surely did seem nice. I wish I could sit and chat with them, show them my book collection, and chat about how life was without electricity or automobiles or televisions or computers. Wouldn’t those folks love the chance to experience this modern world of ours?
Born with a double dose of the happy gene (yes there is a happy gene, according to science), I love my life and enjoy nearly every moment of it. Not that I don’t have problems. All people do. But when I hear or think about the horrors that too often visit other people, I thank God for my good fortune and suddenly my problems seem minor by comparison. For example, I’m plagued with worry for the Syrian people who are running for their lives. Little children are losing their parents. Parents are losing their children. Such pain I cannot imagine.
So I cannot complain. I’m living as safe as one can live. I’m happy. I feel good. I enjoy my work and I believe that my work is of value. I have family whom I love and family who loves me. I have friends who are as dear to me as family. I’ve always been an animal lover and animals have given me tremendous joy.
I haven’t admitted to anyone now that I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately. Then out of the blue, a good friend from New York just sent me this piece written by the fabulously talented writer Nora Ephron, a woman who will be greatly missed by many, a woman who just died prematurely. Her writing is about aging and facing death… Like everything she did, this very talented writer makes you feel better about all aspects of life, including anticipating the end. (Nora Ephron, who died on Tuesday aged 71, was the award-winning screenwriter whose credits include When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless In Seattle. In recent years, she also wrote two books of witty and poignant essays about ageing. Here, she faces her own mortality.)
BY NORA EPHRON:
‘The honest truth is that it’s sad to be over 60,’ said Nora Ephron When I turned 60, I had a big birthday party in Las Vegas, which happens to be one of my top five places. We spent the weekend eating and drinking and gambling and having fun. We all made some money and screamed and yelled and I went to bed deliriously happy. The spell lasted for several days, and as a result, I managed to avoid thinking about what it all meant. Denial has been a way of life for me for many years. I actually believe in denial. It seemed to me that the only way to deal with a birthday of this sort was to do everything possible to push it from my mind. Nothing else about me is better than it was at 50, or 40, or 30, but I definitely have the best haircut I’ve ever had, I like my new apartment, and, as the expression goes, consider the alternative.
I have been 60 for four years now, and by the time you read this I will probably have been 60 for five. I survived turning 60, I was not thrilled to turn 61, I was less thrilled to turn 62, I didn’t much like being 63, I loathed being 64, and I will hate being 65. I don’t let on about such things in person; in person, I am cheerful and Pollyanna-ish. But the honest truth is that it’s sad to be over 60. The long shadows are everywhere friends dying and battling illness. A miasma of melancholy hangs there, forcing you to deal with the fact that your life, however happy and successful, has been full of disappointments and mistakes, little ones and big ones. There are dreams that are never quite going to come true, ambitions that will never quite be realised. There are, in short, regrets. Edith Piaf was famous for singing a song called ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’. It’s a good song. I know what she meant. I can get into it; I can make a case that I regret nothing. After all, most of my mistakes turned out to be things I survived, or turned into funny stories, or, on occasion, even made money from. But the truth is that je regrette beaucoup. Why do people say it’s better to be older than to be younger? It’s not better. Even if you have all your marbles, you’re constantly reaching for the name of the person you met the day before yesterday. Even if you’re in great shape, you can’t chop an onion the way you used to and you can’t ride a bicycle several miles without becoming a candidate for traction. If you work, you’re surrounded by young people who are plugged into the marketplace, the demographic, the zeitgeist; they want your job and someday soon they’re going to get it. If you’re fortunate enough to be in a sexual relationship, you’re not going to have the sex you once had. Plus, you can’t wear a bikini. Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was 26. If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re 34.
A magazine editor called me the other day, an editor who, like me, is over 60. Her magazine was going to do an issue on Age, and she wanted me to write something for it. We began to talk about the subject, and she said, ‘You know what drives me nuts? Why do women our age say, “In my day…”? This is our day.’ But it isn’t our day. It’s their day. We’re just hanging on. We can’t wear tank tops, we have no idea who 50 Cent is, and we don’t know how to use almost any of the functions on our mobile phones. If we hit the wrong button on the remote control and the television screen turns to snow, we have no idea how to get the television set back to where it was in the first place. (This is the true nightmare of the empty nest: your children are gone, and they were the only people in the house who knew how to use the remote control.) Technology is a bitch. I can no longer even work out how to get the buttons on the car radio to play my favourite stations. The gears on my bicycle mystify me. On my bicycle! And thank God no one has given me a digital wristwatch. In fact, if any of my friends are reading this, please don’t ever give me a digital anything. Just the other day I went shopping at a store in Los Angeles that happens to stock jeans that actually come all the way up to my waist, and I was stunned to discover that the customer just before me was Nancy Reagan. That’s how old I am: Nancy Reagan and I shop in the same store.
Anyway, I said to this editor, ‘You’re wrong, you are so wrong, this is not our day, this is their day.’ But she was undaunted. She said to me, ‘Well then, I have another idea: Why don’t you write about Age Shame?’ I said to her, ‘Get someone who is only 50 to write about Age Shame. I am way past Age Shame, if I ever had it. I’m just happy to be here at all.’ We are a generation that has learned to believe we can do something about almost everything. We are active hell, we are proactive. We are positive thinkers. We have the power. We will take any suggestion seriously. If a pill will help, we will take it. If being in the Zone will help, we will enter the Zone. When we hear about the latest ludicrously expensive face cream that is alleged to turn back the clock, we will go out and buy it even though we know that the last five face creams we fell for were completely ineffectual. We will do crossword puzzles to ward off Alzheimer’s and eat six almonds a day to ward off cancer; we will scan ourselves to find whatever can be nipped in the bud. We are in control. Behind the wheel. On the cutting edge. We make lists. We seek out the options. We surf the net. But there are some things that are absolutely, definitively, entirely uncontrollable. I am dancing around the D word, but I don’t mean to be coy. When you cross into your 60s, your odds of dying or of merely getting horribly sick on the way to dying spike.
Death is a sniper. It strikes people you love, people you like, people you know, it’s everywhere. You could be next. But then you turn out not to be. But then again you could be. And meanwhile, your friends die, and you’re left not just bereft, not just grieving, not just guilty, but utterly helpless. There is nothing you can do. Nothing. Everybody dies. Here are some questions I am constantly fretting over: Do you splurge or do you hoard? Do you live every day as if it’s your last, or do you save your money on the chance you’ll live 20 more years? Is life too short, or is it going to be too long? Do you work as hard as you can, or do you slow down to smell the roses? And where do carbohydrates fit into all this? Are we really going to have to spend our last years avoiding bread, especially now that bread is so unbelievably delicious? And what about chocolate?
My friend Judy died last year. She was the person I told everything to. She was my best friend, my extra sister, my true mother, sometimes even my daughter. She was all these things, and one day she called up to say, the weirdest thing has happened, there’s a lump on my tongue. Less than a year later, she was dead. She was 66 years old. She had no interest in dying, right to the end. She died horribly. And now she’s gone. I think of her every day, sometimes six or seven times a day. I have her white cashmere shawl. I wore it for days after her death; I wrapped myself up in it; I even slept in it. But now I can’t bear to wear it because it feels as if that’s all there is left of my Judy. I want to talk to her. I want to have lunch with her. I want her to give me a book she just read and loved. She is my phantom limb, and I can’t believe I’m here without her. A few months before they found the lump on her tongue, Judy and I went out to lunch to celebrate a friend’s birthday. It had been a difficult year: barely a week had passed without some terrible news about someone’s health. ‘Death doesn’t really feel eventual or inevitable. It still feels…avoidable somehow,’ said Judy. I said at lunch, what are we going to do about this? Shouldn’t we talk about this? This is what our lives have become. Death is everywhere. How do we deal with it? Our birthday friend said, oh, please, let’s not be morbid. Yes. Let’s not be morbid. Let’s not. On the other hand, I meant to have a conversation with Judy about death.
Before either of us was sick or dying. I meant to have one of those straightforward conversations where you discuss What You Want in the eventuality well, I say ‘the eventuality’, but that’s one of the oddest things about this whole subject. Death doesn’t really feel eventual or inevitable. It still feels . . . avoidable somehow. But it’s not. We know in one part of our brains that we are all going to die, but on some level we don’t quite believe it. But I meant to have that conversation with Judy, so that when the inevitable happened we would know what our intentions were, so that we could help each other die in whatever way we wanted to die. But of course, once they found the lump, there was no having the conversation. Living wills are much easier to draft when you are living instead of possibly dying; they’re the ultimate hypotheticals. And what difference would it have made if we’d had that conversation? Before you get sick, you have absolutely no idea of how you’re going to feel once you do. You can imagine you’ll be brave, but it’s just as possible you’ll be terrified. You can hope that you’ll find a way to accept death, but you could just as easily end up raging against it.
The day before my friend Henry died, he asked to be brought a large brown folder he kept in his office. In it were love letters he had received when he was younger. He sent them back to the women who’d written them, wrote them all lovely notes, and destroyed the rest. What’s more, he left complete, detailed instructions for his funeral, including the music he wanted all of this laid out explicitly in a file on his computer he called ‘Exit’. I so admire Henry and the way he handled his death. It’s inspirational. And yet I can’t quite figure out how any of it applies. For one thing, I have managed to lose all my love letters. Not that there were that many. And if I ever found them and sent them back to the men who wrote them to me, I promise you they would be completely mystified. I haven’t heard from any of these men in years, and on the evidence, they all seem to have done an extremely good job of getting over me. As for instructions for my funeral, I suppose I could come up with a few. For example, if there’s a reception afterward, I know what sort of food I would like served: those little finger sandwiches from this place on Lexington Avenue called William Poll. And champagne would be nice. I love champagne. It’s so festive. But otherwise, I don’t have a clue. I haven’t even worked out whether I want to be buried or cremated largely because I’ve always worried that cremation in some way lowers your chances of being reincarnated. (If there is such a thing.) (Which I know there isn’t.) (And yet . . .)
And meanwhile, here we are. What is to be done? I don’t know. I hope that’s clear. In a few minutes I will have finished writing this piece, and I will go back to life itself. Squirrels have made a hole in the roof, and we don’t quite know what to do about it. Soon it will rain; we should probably take the cushions inside. I need more bath oil. And that reminds me to say something about bath oil. I use this bath oil I happen to love. It’s called Dr Hauschka’s lemon bath. It costs about £15 a bottle, which is enough for about two weeks of baths if you follow the instructions. The instructions say one capful per bath. But a capful gets you nowhere. A capful is not enough. I have known this for a long time. But if the events of the last few years have taught me anything, it’s that I’m going to feel like an idiot if I die tomorrow and I skimped on bath oil today. So I use quite a lot of bath oil. More than you could ever imagine. After I take a bath, my bathtub is as dangerous as an oil slick. But thanks to the bath oil, I’m as smooth as silk. I am going out to buy more, right now. Goodbye.