Its All About Asking the Right Question

This is about life. Or death. Maybe life and death? I’m not sure.

I recently had a conversation, sort of, with my uncle’s wife. In her day she was quite the belle, blond hair and a fashionista. One of her most memorable outfits was a toreador get up, all black, jacket and slacks, with a hat that had little black balls ringing it. My beloved uncle was built somewhat like a bull. Maybe that’s why she chose to wear it to his funeral. Anyway, she was always a “statement.”

My uncle died tragically, and early, near as I recall maybe early 60’s. Suddenly my aunt’s statements became increasingly muted. Then she was stricken with Parkinson’s. She’s 90 something, plus or minus a little, and has been laying in bed–for years. My dearest cousin, her oldest daughter, was visiting her, as she does very often, and decided it would be a boost for her mom to talk to me. Her part of the conversation, that part I could understand anyway, was, “Hi Billy.” I wouldn’t even put an “!” after it because there wasn’t enough strength in her voice to warrant it. And yet it brought back a lot of memories.

First was the “Billy.” I’m not from the south and there’s no “Bob” that comes after Billy. It was  my nickname forever until one day I came home from college and announced to my mother, “Let the word go forth…..we’re done with Billy!” But for those few still left who shared my childhood either as elders or contemporaries, Billy I remain.

Then there was this split screen thing that happened in my head. On one side was the garbled, gurgled “Hi Billy,” but on the other I heard her as I had heard her for so many years, the crystal clear, somewhat hi-pitched, “Hi Billy” and always with an exclamation point.

The “conversation” got me to thinking. Life is a game of chance and the odds aren’t too much better than they are in any game of chance. On the one hand there was my favorite great aunt Pearl. She lived her late 80’s and early 90’s in a beautiful condo apartment in an excellent senior facility. The living room window had a lovely pastoral view of trees, and flowers, and grass. It also had a road and on that road came, once, twice, three times or more daily ambulances to pick up her friends and pack them off ultimately to the funeral home, sometimes with an intermediary stop at a hospital, sometimes not.

Aunt Pearl, for whom the word “sprightly” was invented, came to a decision. It just wasn’t worth it anymore. As she said to me the day it was my turn to be told she was going to stop taking her meds, “What do I need to live to 100 for? To get a letter from a President I don’t even like?!?” (Happened to be Reagan.) She’d outlived both her sons-in-law, assorted nieces and nephews, and tragically a smaller assortment of their children and in at least one case their children’s children. So she stopped taking the meds. One night she went to sleep and morning never showed up.

Then there was my dad whose most fervent desire was to work until he died. He did. ‘went to work one morning, came home, had a heart attack, and in a few hours was dead. I’m sure there was pain and fear, but not for long, which was good.

Not everyone beats the odds. My mother, possessor of an extremely active mind–and mouth– died of cancer over the span of two horrid years at age 61. My brother died at 72. He had cancer three times. ‘only beat it twice. He was an international whiz at his business with miles and miles to go before he slept. Yet in round three cancer came loaded for bear and in mere months ate him alive.

My wife and I have have two friends, both women, both vital, educated, popular ladies. I’m guessing 2017 may not be a good year for their families. But it’s the odds, who knows?  The kingpins of Vegas know. Over time, the house never loses.

Then there’s my friend the rabbi, one of the great voices in American liberal Judaism. Dyslexic, he fought his way through college and rabbinical school and spent much of his life urging on youngsters with dyslexia. He was a voice for courage and a voice for change. Now it’s almost impossible to understand a word he says.

So who asked the right question? Was it Peggy Lee when she crooned, “Is that all there is?” Or was it Alfie’s friend who asked, “What’s it all about?”

Truthfully, I’ll be damned if I know.

Talking to a friend recently about health, he said to me something stark in its simplicity, “At our age, you’re healthy–until you’re not.”

So I’m beginning to listen to my patient wife who is trying to re-wire me. Her goal is for me to take every day and find within it as much as can be found. Do fun things (‘not sure writing this column qualifies…), eat out, plan vacations, and take them.

Forget about doing it mañana.

Remember Laugh-In’s “The Fickle Finger of Fate?” Don’t bet against the odds that you’ll get to mañana.

Take today for all its worth.


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