I spent the last three days largely in the garden, largely on my knees, putting in plants, taking out the plants we know as weeds, laying down mulch to keep more weeds from germinating, and the results, while mainly very satisfying, included leg muscles that cramped off and on all night long and woke me up at least four times. Then there's the scar on the back of my hand I no longer remember the cause of, the occasion of. A scar on my arm I know very well; that's where Dr. Berger caught the melanoma before it became something that could have killed me. My white beard covers another scar where he caught another melanoma that could have killed me. Thank you, Dr. Berger. Then about three years ago I hyperextended my left knee and can no longer walk more than about two miles without it becoming painful. At my age things like that don't heal very well. Then last night at the party somebody made a joke about my age and I had to remind him that he's only a few years behind me; and what I should have asked him is, well, my friend, which of us is having knee replacement surgery and which of us isn't? But I didn't think of it in time. I'm not the one having knee replacement surgery. For my age, I'm in pretty good shape.
But it creeps up on you. It begins to call attention to itself. My mind is sharp, I write well, I think as clearly as I always have, I have acquired, some people think, a certain wisdom. But it creeps up on you. You begin to imagine scenarios of life in a wheelchair, say, or requiring metal parts to replace bone and cartilage, or being off balance and falling down the cellar stairs, which would not be fun. You feel more and more for friends who face crippling problems. A good friend is about to have quadruple bypass surgery. Another friend has just had part of her spine fused, after enduring a great deal of pain. Yet another has had a pacemaker installed in his chest, and a fourth is struggling to keep his sight. I keep track of the skill with which I do the Thursday thru Saturday crossword puzzles in the NYTimes, the hard ones; after my grandmother's senile dementia, my mother's Alzheimer's, you look for signs, for forgetfulness, loss of words, anything that might be indicative of that kind of decline, a kind that also creeps up on you, so that by the time you would want to check out of this life you are no longer capable of doing the deed.
So you wind up asking yourself: am I ready? Am I tough enough, physically and mentally, to face the inevitable, the decline and fall of faculties, abilities, of me myself? I have been so lucky: never spent a night in a hospital; never had a major operation, have broken no bones but my nose, have no arthritis I know of, seem to have a sound heart, certainly have a sweet life, and the garden is close to beautiful. More goldfinches would be nice, but maybe they'll come back. Can my luck hold, can I face the inevitable with the grace without which one cannot be said to have lived well?
You have to earn your soul, John Keats said in one of his letters. John Donne had his portrait painted in a shroud, and when the Earl of Essex walked to the scaffold where he was to be beheaded, all London in attendance to watch him die, he wore a black cloak; when he let it fall from his shoulders he was seen to be wearing beneath it a brilliant red doublet, and the crowd gasped. Dying, like living, is a test of mettle. You might think of life as an art form which requires, like all art, a sense of an ending. We won't know until it's over, therefore, whether we have performed well, and then, because we'll be dead, we still won't know. But we must do it well regardless. Otherwise what would life be for?