Thoughts on Aging and Death

Tim McMurdo and I worked together in the mid-1980s and have kept in contact, periodically, to this day. He has stayed in California; I have moved to Stockholm, Sweden.

Late last year Tim and his wife were on a Baltic Sea cruise and stopped in Stockholm for part of a day, so we met to look at each other, now thirty-five years since we first met. I had not yet met his wife, but we have been ‘friends’ on Facebook, so we were not strangers.

I have always enjoyed Tim’s way of perceiving and reacting to the world. It was a treat to be with him and his wife for several hours. We talked about “life, the universe, and everything,” before, during, and after lunch, until they departed.

Oaks on Bernal Hill, San Jose, California

Tim later sent this to me from California:

Ron,

Some thoughts on aging.

I’ve been thinking lately that the older I become the more life seems to be a dream, an illusion, like being unstuck in time. It passes and I don’t know where it has gone or whether I’ve really been there.

I recently looked at a slew of family pictures and saw the differences in all of us that have taken place so rapidly. We live in an extended moment but time collapses everything and we are not aware of how fast it takes place.

Pictures of Mom and Dad, Jim, Galen, Nana, Aunt Alice, Auntie Mim, Uncle Hal, Jan and Burke, Snoozie, all of those we loved, now gone. Weren’t they just here yesterday? Where did they go? Did they ever really exist? Do we exist?

I don’t feel like things have changed that much, but they have. My children are 27. I just held them at birth. This is not a dissociative reaction state. I am centered in person, place, and time. But somehow, I feel like we are hurtling toward some end—some final climax of life and I haven’t the slightest idea of what it has really meant.

I did my job in nature’s eyes. I leave two children in the world. Putting my genetic material into the future generation means I’m a howling success to nature. But as an individual, I’m not sure whether I really matter or whether a little piece of my consciousness will survive death. To nature, none of that matters.

Maybe our perceived ‘higher’ level of human existence is just a self-deception. Just a way to convince oneself to stay alive. And it takes living long enough and without day to day distractions like looking for a mate, navigating a marriage, raising and supporting a family, having a career, to realize there is really nothing external that gives our lives value.

With all of these gone now, I wonder what the purpose is?  Is there some level of spiritual enlightenment that we are now supposed to reach?  Some intuitive understanding of existence beyond our superficial acknowledgments of what a good life should be?  If so, how do we find it?  I’m not really sure.

Slainte and Happy New Year.

Ron to Tim

Tim, deep and worthy thoughts. What is reality, really?

May I post these ponderings, either for attribution or anonymously, in my “Being Old” blog?

Tim to Ron

Yes, of course, with or without attribution, ok by me.  I’m thinking more about these things although as you can see, I have no clear ideas about them. Just thinking.  Would appreciate your thoughts and perspectives as well.

But death is what I can’t make sense of.  Just for our lives to end, and that’s it?  Never to know that we even existed?

A paraphrased line between a Bolshevik revolutionary and a Russian nobleman in a novel I recently read goes like this: “Count Rostov, why are we afraid of the darkness? After all, from the darkness we came, and to the darkness we shall return”.

So simple, and just to accept those words would make our struggle to understand so much easier. That there is nothing, other than this sliver of light we come into and then leave, that life has no intrinsic value.  But, this is unsettling to me. I have some intuitive sense that it’s not that simple.  It’s much bigger than anything my feeble mind can understand so I trust myself to it. A childlike belief that there is something more. Probably wishful thinking but it makes me feel better. Just faith in some greatness of nature that is hidden behind a veil.

Interesting…  how similar our thoughts are about the relentless onslaught of time [I had included this poem in my email to him]. With it comes wisdom, humility, beauty, peace, and love of life. The clarity of mind compliments of the entropy of the body.

Well, Chris is calling me to go out and work in the yard. Back to reality.

Best,

Tim

Ron to Tim

Subject: Death, where there are no taxes

Tim,

A worthy subject, one I admit I think more about these days, but without any sense of dread, just impatience—so much yet to experience!

I read books which touch on the subject. D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and others who bring to us the Eastern way of looking at things. As Suzuki points out, we in the West are always engaged in subject/object, dualistic perceptions, and answers.  My growing perception is that there are no edges to anything, including ourselves, except by convention so we can move around in the world for our various purposes. Where do “I” physically begin and end? One nanometer beyond my skin? No, I say, and here is a metaphorical approach to the answer.

Take the great oak tree which has been “alive” for two hundred years. It was previously alive as an acorn that fell from an older tree. It will eventually fall and enrich the soil as it decomposes with the help of various smaller organisms, including the slime-mold, for which it is food, or lumber, or other useful stuff.

While it was “alive” It produced countless acorns, some of which successfully took root; most of the others became food for animals or the small, hungry organisms in the welcoming earth. While “alive” it shared its body and branches and leaves with other living things: birds, insects, mosses, fungi, some of which were in a symbiotic relationship with it.

Without taking this picture further, I see life as a continuum, not an either/or proposition. You are blessed to have participated in the creation of children. Other who don’t so create still have a role to play. Here’s an article I wrote that is somewhat congruent on the topic: The Holy Zygote.

Back to the “I” who will “die.” Who is this “I?” You know that Buddhists and others have a different view of this than do we westerners. Alan Watts asserts: “there is no ‘I’ which can be protected.”

I may write a haibun on the subject, using the oak as the focal point. Thanks for the stimulus.

Ron

Fallen oak, Bernal Hill

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The Ballad of Lars Branje

ScreenHunter_437 May. 06 11.58I had seen Lars for well over a year, at the exercise gym I visit twice per week. Lars is notable—tall, lean, white-haired and looking determined in his use of the equipment. Did I say he was an old guy? Yes, he is and, being one myself, I felt a kinship to this fellow survivor.

After more than a year of being around each other at least once a week, we finally acknowledged each other’s existence (such things develop slowly in Sweden) by nodding our heads to each other as we passed in the exercise area of Friskis & Svettis (which I like to call Frisky & Sweaty).

Finally, we uttered words to each other. I quickly let him know I am incompetent in Swedish. He effortlessly switched to English which my poor hearing was able to process adequately.

Lars at the Gym

One thing led to another. I imagined he might wish to write or dictate something I could put in my “Being Old” blog. Immediately upon my suggesting this, he started his story, which eventually led me to his nearby apartment where I viewed a DVD film of the first corneal transplant in Europe, 1957, at a hospital in Jönköping, Sweden. Lars was the recipient of that transplant.

Lars and Plane-edited

Lars Branje (right), training as an Army jet pilot in Ljungbyhed, Sweden (1955)

While training to be a Swedish Army jet pilot, Lars found that his eyesight was slowly fading. He was unable to continue training.

He became a sports journalist for Norrlands-Posten newspaper, then the Allehanda news organization (now MittMedia AB), which gave him the opportunity to travel abroad.When he was in Milan covering a match between the Milan club and Juventus of Turin, his sight failed completely.

He went to a Milan hospital where he was diagnosed with Keratoconus. From the staff at this hospital he learned there was a world-famous eye surgeon in Sweden. Lars was referred to Dr. Henrik Sjögren  in Jönköping. This was the first of many “lucky” event in Lars’s life—lucky, in this instance, that the Milan medical staff knew of this surgeon in Lars’s home country.

ScreenHunter_412 Apr. 09 17.02

Henrik Samuel Conrad Sjögren, eye surgeon (1957)

Doctor Sjögren was known internationally for identifying what is now called “Sjögren’s Syndrome,” after having published the English translation of his doctoral thesis. As head of the newly established eye clinic in Jönköping, under the aegis of the University of Gothenberg, Dr. Sjögren conducted research into surgical replacement of the cornea. He developed an instrument and a technique that was used in other countries for many years.

Lars and Dr. Sjögren established rapport and, because of Lars’s youth and good health, he was chosen to undergo the first corneal transplants (both eyes), using corneas from cadavers. The operations were successful and became widely celebrated in Sweden.

Lars Branje-09

Bengt Bedrup and Lars Branje during a televised interview, 1957

After surgery, Lars needed to lie quietly  for three months. During one interview session after surgery with TV journalist Bengt Bedrup , Lars asked him for a lighted smoke . The photograph on the side table is of Lars’s  children, Lena and Tomas.

[Click here to see the interview]

Lying quietly in bed or anywhere for an extended period is a “katastrof” for Lars. His nature is to be physically active. Later in life he ran the Stockholm Marathon, skied the Vasaloppet, became certificated in the  “Swedish classic circuit” (cross country skiing, cycling, swimming, and cross country running), and ran the Lidingöloppet (30 km.)

Nord07Lars says he has had a wonderful life. After working for the Allehanda news organization, he signed on with Radio Nord, popularly known as “Pirate Radio,” although it operated within the existing laws . As a member of the broadcast crew, he was stationed on the vessel Bon Jour in the Baltic Sea off the eastern coast of Sweden, two weeks on/one week off. It offered live news and recorded music not then available on the official radio stations of Sweden, and was preferred by many Swedes.

The most memorable event of his work with Radio Nord was to be the first person to announce to Sweden that Dag Hammarskjöld, The UN’s Secretary General and former Prime Minister of Sweden,  had died in an airplane crash in Rhodesia (now Zambia), 18 September 1961. Lars was in radio contact with pilots he knew from his Army days, and they gave him information not available through regular news outlets.

Radio Nord started on 8 March 1961 but had to shut down only fifteen months later, in June 1962, following passage of a new Swedish law aimed at silencing its broadcasts.

But, the official “Swedish Radio” had learned from the popularity of Radio Nord, so despite an official prohibition from hiring former Radio Nord employees, Lars then went to work for Sveriges Radio AB as a live announcer. Up until this time, all the programs were pre-recorded for broadcast at a later time.

Lars remembers the 1960s and 1970s as the years to be “out in the world.” He mentions the Congo and Vietnam. As a journalist he has interviewed Neil Armstrong in Houston, and Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles at Gröna Lund, the major amusement park in Stockholm.

After around four years with Swedish radio, Lars became a free-lance journalist for radio and TV companies, and for the Swedish Air Force.

The highlight of his career was a private half-hour interview with Nelson Mandela, upon his release from twenty-seven years of incarceration in South African prisons, 1990.

Both of Lars’s new corneas lasted until he was covering a soccer match in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs were playing the Philadelphia Flyers. His right eye stopped working. He returned to Sweden and saw Dr. Per Fagerholm, then at St. Erik Eye Hospital in Stockholm. His right eye was inoperable because internal pressure had separated the optic nerve from the brain. He retained the use of his left eye, until 2012 when he effectively went blind.

Lars Branje-12

Branka Samolov, Surgeon, St. Erik Eye Hospital, Stockholm

Returning to St. Erik Eye Hospital, he encountered the surgeon Dr. Branka Samolov with whom he established good rapport, as he did with Dr. Sjögren in 1957. And also, again, because of his good health and positive attitude they together decided to go ahead with another corneal transplant, recognizing the increased risk due to his now older eye, especially in that it had undergone previous surgeries.

It was a success. The headline of a TV news article quotes Lars speaking to his surgeon, “I can see your face! You are my saving angel”

[See the Expressen TV News broadcast here]

Forty-five years had elapsed since his first eye surgery. The hospital staff made note that Lars Branje represents the entire history of corneal transplantation in Sweden. The advances in medical knowledge and surgical techniques now allowed Lars to completely avoid lying in bed after his surgery, being immediately ambulatory.

Here is where Lars said that his “luck” was again emphasized: by being able to have the best surgeon available for his problem.

Now that his sight is returned to him, he has resumed his activities as a pensionär, meeting former colleagues–pilots and journalists–and enjoying his children and grandchildren; “doing whatever I want to do.”

Tinnitus

I met a man around 15 years ago who, a week after we met, jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge to his death.

We had a mutual friend, Kelly, who asked me to meet with him after I had told Kelly about my tinnitus. Kelly was interested in how I dealt with the constant low hum and high-pitched hissing, and the occasional but temporary loud, clear tone. He said his friend, whom I later met, was depressed about his tinnitus. Kelly thought my meeting with him and talking about our shared affliction might help him.

Upon meeting his friend in San Jose I learned he was, indeed, depressed about his tinnitus, but it was different from mine. He said that, when in conversation, whatever he heard echoed and reverberated.

~1438120515~what did you sayI told him what I had told Kelly—I have found a way, both voluntarily and involuntarily, to ignore the constant hissing and humming. I don’t ‘hear’ my tinnitus unless I consciously think about it, or unless I am in a place where there is almost complete silence. Kelly’s friend was not impressed, saying this way of dealing with it was not available to him.

Kelly’s friend had other problems as well. He had lost a critically important client for his business, and his wife had left him. So, I can’t blame the tinnitus for his unfortunate demise, but it seems a contributing factor.

I began to notice the sounds in my head around twenty-five years ago, when in my early fifties. At first it was the hissing which masked all sibilants and stridents: s/z/f/v. Also, I found myself reading lips, needing to see my interlocutor’s mouth to understand some of the emanating sounds, both heard and unheard. I finally bought hearing aids at around age sixty, but even as the technology has improved (I’m on my third pair) nothing can make me hear s/z/f/v. Except for a few distorted tones in the upper ranges (typically played by flutes and violins), I hear music well-enough to enjoy it fully. I can fill in the blanks when listening to familiar music, just as I interpolate much of the speech directed toward me.

One’s hearing deficit is hard for others to understand, much less be empathetic with. A blind person, or a person with an impairment of the limbs or other parts of the visible body, more naturally evokes sympathetic reactions. The confusion of a deaf person is often perceived as humorous, and it serves one (me, at least) to go along with the humor and even build upon it.

My mother, in her eighties, was concerned about her tinnitus. She took medication to control her paranoid tendencies, so the sounds in her head would evoke confusion and concern. I reassured her that I had the same affliction and, thus, it was a family trait.

I wonder if Kelly’s friend had paranoid or other psychological tendencies which the tinnitus exacerbated. Maybe it was the tinnitus which pushed him over the edge.

An excellent novel and story to read if you want to enter the world of the partially deaf: Deaf Sentence, by David Lodge.

Missing Relatives and Friends

I am currently dwelling upon the disappearance of all my older relatives and my only sibling. There is no one remaining in my family with whom I have shared memories from before my first child turned, say, ten years old in 1973. That’s around 35 years of remembered history which is not directly relevant to anyone living. To keep some of these memories alive I have created a Family Blog.

I have few friends left from the older times. Fred and I went to Berkeley High school together, and we have remained in touch since 1953. Gary and I met professionally in San Francisco 1963, went our separate ways in 1964, but have exchanged letters at Christmastime ever since. Denny and I met professionally in Sacramento in 1977 and quickly became pals, but we live far apart. We stay in touch primarily by Facebook.

Several other friends, all younger than I, have died. One old friend, a buddy from our time together in the US Navy, recently contacted me after around 50 years since we last saw each other. His family brought him to meet me in San Francisco when I was visiting family near there. His mind was failing under the burden of a growing dementia. He and his family wanted a photo record of this visit to remind him of it. We spent two days together traveling the San Francisco Bay Area, remembering old times and old friends when we had been on shore leave.

Arnie and me

I have made and retain other friends from newer times. We will grow older together.

So what more is there to say regarding the fading away of family and friends? I guess there is no conclusion to reach other than to recognize the obvious and to accept it.

An Invitation to Survivors

Yes, we are the survivors:

  • of The Great Depression that our birth parents nonetheless brought us into;
  • of the Second World War which our parents¹ experienced directly or indirectly;
  • of the epidemics of childhood diseases and of the periodic “flus”;
  • of the accidents that befall young people especially;
  • of our own participation in the many undeclared wars since WWII, or in the peacetime military;
  • of our experience with, and sometimes misbehavior around, big machines, including especially automobiles;
  • of the mistakes in judgment we have made throughout the years;
  • of the random events over which we have no control.

(¹Note: the word “parents” is used generically here, as some of us were raised by other relatives, or foster parents, or institutions.)

I invite you to use this forum to tell our readers what you have learned in your many decades.

I invite you to help me create a personal history of our generation that will serve as a resource to others.

I invite you, as a brother or sister survivor, to stay with me and the other contributors to this weblog as we fade into the sunset.

To contribute, contact me at ron@pavellas.com