Now there is only the past. What was once a seemingly immeasurable future has shrunk overnight to a span of months. At least that is the way it seems. I try to assure myself that I am only indulging in my lifelong habit of melodrama and self-pity, that the prospect is not as grim as that. And perhaps that is so. But still, the diagnosis is what it is. My doctor has not ventured an estimate of life expectancy but Ruth looked it up on a medical website and it said three to five years. Not long for one who has lived to seventy-seven and except for a vexing shortness of breath, adult onset diabetes, two eroding disks in my lower back, a faulty memory and assorted other ailments associated with the accumulation of years, still feels young, with much left to do.
I have always felt young; I suppose some would say the feeling has hardened into a habit that willfully, stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the passing of actual time and the evidence of my failing body. On some days I would even say that myself. But by young I don’t mean that I fantasize I am still an active, ambitious fellow on the threshold of adulthood hoping to understand life and the world life is lived in. What I do mean is that I have continued to believe, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that whatever my age, life will still offer new challenges, new opportunities, new accomplishments; and that there will always be new things to experience and to learn, new topics to think about and, yes, new things to write about. Though in preparing this piece I am attempting to come to terms with the hard fact that none of these things may be true, still, to set a limit on those expectations seems inconceivable to me, even now.
Yet the fact is that often in recent years I have thought of myself in the past tense, an idea that sits oddly and uncomfortably next to the opposed conviction that I remain young. More than once in this blog I have cast myself in retrospective mode. Consider what I posted on January 6, 2013. I began by describing the view that lay outside my window, then wrote:
“The scene before me seems immemorial; two hundred years ago a Cherokee brave might have stood on this same January mountainside in the Southern Appalachians and seen much the same sight, only the forests would have been denser and would have been evergreens instead of hardwoods. It is an intensely personal moment of immediacy: Of a life being wholly lived but surrounded by a landscape that has seen countless human and animal lives come and go; has seen this and not even noticed.”
Next came the retrospective bit: “These thoughts come to me because in the last weeks I’ve started to sense my own impermanence; an apprehension that my time may be short and a concomitant awareness of how much will be lost when I am gone. I do not mean me, myself. I’m not that vain. Or not even the inevitable fading away of my written works. But a loss of what has been in me, in my heart and mind and hopes and fears, things that no one but I can know about. I look at my bookshelves, lined with volumes each of which has its double story to tell, its own and mine too, mine in the sense of the private message each one delivered to me and informed how I thought and felt and, yes, lived. Every book-spine tells a certain tale about a certain time of my living or a certain person who touched my life. Each has also informed in some way what I wrote. But of course what I wrote is as impermanent as I myself. It will not be as if I have left behind an imperishable body of work that will touch others ages hence. I will have been an obscure regional author, altogether unremembered.
“Yet is this not true of the…human condition? But a handful of lives have been lived whose accomplishments deserve to be…remembered. I do not deceive myself that I would leave such a bequest. I have garnered some acclaim in my time; not as much as I craved but probably far more than I rightly deserved. Do not mistake me: I don’t mourn losing my physical self; I as a person am of little account. But I do mourn the loss of this world as I have seen it—these forests, these highlands, these clear skies skiffed with cloud, which never noticed me.
“Of course that makes no sense. ….No matter how fervently I feel myself to be an organic part of the mountain world I live in; no matter how much its beauty has transported me; no matter how harsh its weathers and splendid autumns have struck me with awe; the mountains mark me not. For them, I have not even been here. This has been true of mankind from the beginning…. Is it death itself that we all fear; or is it the loss of a wondrous yet cruelly [oblivious and] unremembering world?
“But have we truly examined the world whose attention we have so craved? For most of us, including me, the answer has been no. The material world is, for most of us, a mere backdrop against which we play out our preoccupations. I have written about the mountains…because they speak to me, not because I am in some fashion a part of them that they, in turn, recognize and accept. The truth is that we humans regard most highly ourselves and those whom we love or pretend to love; all else has been but window-dressing and passing fancy.”
If I were to have written the above today I would, of course, have had to mention the deleterious impact humans have had on the natural world through global warming and climate change. In that one way we have impacted nature and perhaps have even commenced its destruction. But in 2013 I went on by mentioning my vanity in wishing I might have achieved more recognition as a writer: “It is, I confess, a ridiculous desire…; [yet] I have persisted. It is what we humans do. We persist not only in the face of indifference but in the face of derision, contempt, even hatred. Whole races have done this. It is not simply that our first laws are vanity and self-preservation—or self-delusion—or even commitment to a cause or a faith. It is that we wish to believe there is a uniqueness in us that justifies our having lived…and a desire for that uniqueness to have been noticed….” As Dylan Thomas wrote, we rage, rage against the dying of the light. And we rage rightly.”