In an interview with NPR this morning, Christopher Buckley, son of William F. and Patricia Buckley, talked about his parents. Today is the first anniversary of his mother's death, and he was talking about the book he wrote about them, Losing Mum and Pup.
I was all ears, not simply because the elder Buckley was such a wonderful character, but also because well, losing parents is something of a big deal with me and my wife as of late. I told my wife I was going to go to school this morning because I had to read student papers--"I'm going to put my nose to gravestone," I told her. You don't have to be Freudian to interpret that slip.
What Buckley the younger says is that in the 40-day stint it took him to write the book, he enjoyed 40 more days to be with his parents, even though they're both gone now, having died within a year of each other. And then he said he especially enjoyed those forty days he spent with them, because those days featured mum and pup "when they were in their prime. . .when they were young and vital."
Which started me thinking about the word vital, whose origins aren't much of a mystery even to those who failed Latin: "from L. vitalis 'of or belonging to life,' from vita 'life,' related to vivere 'to live.'"
What is life, really, or how to we judge its efficacy? Most of us who have ailing parents understand the complexity of that question. Buckley's mum, he said, "died of a thousand cuts." In the last two years, I've come to understand, like never before, just what that line means.
In the minds of the 90-year-olds I know--those only 30 years older than I am--life itself can be fitted into a circle that progressively grows ever smaller. Medical problems and reports constitute most of what's of interest, for good reason. Just exactly when and how one gets lunch or dinner becomes the means by which people that age number their days. Breaks from the those defined rituals can be traumatic because when the consciousness grows smaller, what does find a place therein is conversely magnified.
My only memory of my dominie grandfather is of someone fastidious about how long I ran the faucet in order to get cold water when I was a kid, a kindergartner. He died when I was seven, I believe. I have no other memories, other than his scolding, an attitude nurtured by his Depression memories--and his age, when small things loom large.
And it makes sense, I suppose, that as of late I've started to think about those intervening thirty years and just exactly how I'll spend them--if indeed God allots me the hours. I wonder how I can avoid the crotchetiness that seems so frequently to accompany the years.
A good friend used to say that he thought "sanctification," the Christian belief that one's walk with God grows increasingly closer and closer throughout life, is, in fact, a fiction. He said he didn't know any old men, even those who were strong believers, who weren't forever grouchy. I'd like to believe him wrong.
This week my assigned topic for a student chapel was simply "getting older," specifically, what gobs of grace accrue to those of us who have run the race well and all of that. I told the chaplain it was a topic I didn't think I could deliver right now--at this far-less-"vital" time in my life. Maybe next year. Maybe someday when I'm shuffleboarding in warm Florida sun.
I remember a time, years ago already, when I decided to back off of my dreams, when I told myself that I'd never get reviewed in the NY Times Book Review. That realization--at the time--came as relief. When I'd finally come to admit that there were some mountains I couldn't climb, the concession seemed liberating.
Now I wonder if it wasn't at that point, or someplace close, when the boundaries of my world began to narrow, to tighten, to withdraw. It's true of all of us, finally, of course.
But then I know from literature that thoughts on mortality don't have to be laments, that those who may know best how to live are those who've come to understand that one's life eventually reaches a closed parenthesis. I've read enough of others to know that such a realization can make every last bud on our front yard maples even more worth noting.
How to nurture that joy--how to stay "vital"--that becomes the question, the vision, the dream, I guess, even for old men.
It was cloudy this morning, rainy. I didn't go out with the camera.
But there will be another bright Saturday soon; of that I'm sure.