“Seventy-five is just a number,” she said.
“Yeah,” I nodded, “but it’s a big number.”
You see, my father died at fifty-four, and I always assumed I too would probably go at or around that tender age. And, in fact, I probably would have gone sooner were I not fit and had I not found myself doubled over and gasping for breath during a walk with my wife on March 16, 2017.
I know that with specificity, because my wife and I had met up at Grand Central Station that day: she’d come from a meeting in Manhattan; I from a taped-for-St. Patrick’s Day appearance with my co-author George Marlin on Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s TV show. (We were promoting our book, Sons of Saint Patrick: A History of the Archbishops of New York.)
When Syd and I got home, I called my cardiologist and five days later was in the cardiac catheterization lab at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where a stent was put into the left anterior descending artery of my heart. That’s the artery charmingly christened the “widow-maker.” It’s almost certainly what brought down Dad.
Later in that year, metastatic cancer was found in my neck, for which I was treated in 2018.
A year later, I was treated for prostate cancer. And no sooner was that done than I was diagnosed as having heart failure.
All that sounds dreadful, I know, but today I feel great. Blessed, in fact. All indications are that the treatment I received at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, God bless ‘em, was successful, and new drugs are, according to my cardiologist, “renovating” my heart.
“As long as we’re renovating,” I asked him, “could I get it in stainless steel? That’s all the rage, you know.”
He was mildly amused.
Here’s the thing: I told this tale of woe a couple of times to old friends who asked, “How are you?”, over the course of a recent weekend at a high-school reunion in Worthington, Ohio – my hometown. Questions about my health arose in part because I’d written about the cancers here, so I’m to blame. I finally had the good sense to adapt a version of the sensible rule of a certain golf foursome: No medical talk after the first tee.
The reunion was four-dozen people (not counting spouses), all my age, gathered to get reacquainted and to reminisce. I gave a short speech. I quoted Bernard Malamud (The Natural), G.K. Chesterton (Heretics), and William Shakespeare (Sonnet 104 and The Tempest). Oh, and I also quoted John Lennon and Paul McCartney, of whom you may have heard.
I’m not going to rehash that speech.
Flying home to New York, I looked out the window and the clouds floating by that looked like a pod of white whales against the sea-blue sky. A grand glimpse of God’s gorgeous creativity, and I reflected on the ravages of time.
The very, very well-organized reunion manager and her husband had created an array of 1965 yearbook photos of all our classmates who have gone to the Lord. Or, as I like to say, died. The total was about 21 percent. (That’s of nearly 350 graduates of good ol’ WHS, so you can see the turnout of the living was low.)
And our reunion spreadsheet included twenty-one “lost souls,” which is not a theological judgment, of course. It has come to seem odd in the Internet Age that anybody can “fall off the grid,” but, failing access to IRS records, there are people who seem to. And “lost,” of course, does not mean dead. In fact, it means nothing more than we can no longer find them, which may be because they don’t wish to be found. Where is Mr. Keen?
One thing I said in the speech was that we, born in 1947, are to the current crop of high-school grads, what people born in 1890 were to us in 1965. I was close to my great-grandmother, who was born in 1863 and died in 1959, and that connection to the 19th century through her was very important to me – a constant reminder of tempus fugit.
“Time flies” hardly does that Latin phrase justice. It’s generally taken to have come to us from Virgil’s Georgics, where the great Roman poet wrote, fugit inreparabile tempus, with the more telling meaning: it flees, this irreplaceable time.
At the reunion, I heard a few – but only a few – expressions of regret for things that happened in the past. I’m generally opposed to regret, simply because (especially nearly six decades on) there’s rarely anything one might do to right an old wrong. That’s different than sorrow, of course, which we all felt for that missing 21 percent
Hamlet says, “I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.” In other words, we’re all sinners, and, God knows, I had my moments of being, as the Prince describes himself, an “arrant knave.” Christ is changing that.
I mentioned in my speech that in his three-dozen plays and his hundred-fifty-four sonnets, Shakespeare uses the word “love“ 2,146 times and one such case, the aforementioned Sonnet 104, applied to us old classmates:
To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit roseate – at least at the physical level, but it speaks true of minds and souls.
And, so, I spoke of love, which does not age. I didn’t quote the last lines of Philip Larkin’s “The Mower,” but I might have.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
May all of us please God and live eternally in the light of His love.
– In memory of James V. Schall, S.J.