Mortality and the passage of time

Realizing I really did need to get some regular physical exercise last winter, I finally caved in and ventured into the senior center for fitness class twice a week. It took three friends to nudge me into it, and it’s embarrassing to have to admit what 50 years of neglect have done to my body. I’m a long way from my yoga glory. Well, I’m also the only male in the circle, not that it inhibits the lively, enlightening, and laughter-riddled banter that occurs while we’re plodding through the routine. Their hour-plus dialogue could fill a hit sit-com or bestseller novel, if only I could find a plot. Well, much of the running commentary there is also about ailments afflicting folks in the community, sometimes leading to offering rides to their specialists or food deliveries – what I’ll call “good gossip.” And, oh yes, I much prefer to refer to the place as the Old Firehouse, skirting around the stigma of “senior center.”

That has me recalling an aside years ago when our managing editor told of a phone call he’d received from a reader complaining about being referred to as elderly.

“How old are you,” my boss asked and was told 78. “I see,” was the best he could respond with.

After that, I always struck “elderly” from news copy, along with “little” from child or kid.

Getting older is a multistage passage, most notably with the skin and stiffening joints, but the physical changes are only part of the experience.

One part is an awareness of being on borrowed time. Even when I was editing obituaries, I noted how many of the deceased were younger than me, and that was a little more than ten years ago.

Moving around the country has lessened some of the impact of aging, since I haven’t had to watch us grow older together. My high school classmates, for instance, will always never be more than 18 in my mind. Ditto for others left behind, they’re all frozen in time, even the few who are still in correspondence.

So another part is hearing that more of these colleagues of my generation are passing – a situation akin to personally knowing more people who have had been diagnosed with Covid and the recognition that it’s not just multiplying “out there” somewhere – that is, knowing only the abstract – but close at hand.

I recently posted two memorial minutes of Friends I worked with clerking Dover Meeting and have been reflecting on others in my Quaker circles.

Now I get word of the passing of an esteemed reporter who was six years younger than me, and somehow it hits more than those from the workplace who died earlier. To my surprise, it has nothing to do with how close we were in our daily interactions. (He and I weren’t, apart from a comment or two in passing. I should note that he produced “clean copy,” requiring little editing, and that meant little interpersonal friction.)

In his case, I think the blow comes as a sense of an end of an era. He carried institutional weight in covering the New Hampshire’s political scene and soared nationally during the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. With the decline of newspapers in general, his replacement at the statewide Union Leader will never achieve such prominence or influence.

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