The distant whoosh of a surfaced porpoise

This piece on old age, love and death in the New Yorker is beautifully written and moving. I’m not familiar with Roger Angell’s writing, and certainly not devoted to it the way I am to another old man who writes for the New Yorker (I’m referring to John McPhee, of course), but I was very glad to come across this essay. 

A few favorite bits:

Recent and not so recent surveys (including the six-decades-long Grant Study of the lives of some nineteen-forties Harvard graduates) confirm that a majority of us people over seventy-five keep surprising ourselves with happiness. Put me on that list. Our children are adults now and mostly gone off, and let’s hope full of their own lives. We’ve outgrown our ambitions. If our wives or husbands are still with us, we sense a trickle of contentment flowing from the reliable springs of routine, affection in long silences, calm within the light boredom of well-worn friends, retold stories, and mossy opinions. Also the distant whoosh of a surfaced porpoise outside our night windows.”

I’ve been asking myself why I don’t think about my approaching visitor, death. He was often on my mind thirty or forty years ago, I believe, though more of a stranger. Death terrified me then, because I had so many engagements. The enforced opposite—no dinner dates or coming attractions, no urgent business, no fun, no calls, no errands, no returned words or touches—left a blank that I could not light or furnish: a condition I recognized from childhood bad dreams and sudden awakenings. Well, not yet, not soon, or probably not, I would console myself, and that welcome but then tediously repeated postponement felt in time less like a threat than like a family obligation—tea with Aunt Molly in Montclair, someday soon but not now. Death, meanwhile, was constantly onstage or changing costume for his next engagement—as Bergman’s thick-faced chess player; as the medieval night-rider in a hoodie; as Woody Allen’s awkward visitor half-falling into the room as he enters through the window; as W. C. Fields’s man in the bright nightgown—and in my mind had gone from spectre to a waiting second-level celebrity on the Letterman show.”

I’ve wondered what it feels like to face death – I guess we all have. Is it just another unpleasant thing you can ignore until you can’t, like the fact that you need to do laundry and that your toothache isn’t going to go away without a trip to the dentist? My aunt, in the days leading up to her death on New Year’s Day, was still asking when she could go back to her apartment. I don’t know if she knew that wasn’t going to happen. I don’t know if she had the time, the length of life, to view death as a B-level celebrity, slightly familiar and unthreatening. I doubt it. But I like that description anyway.

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