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It's Nelly's World

Date with Eternity

alec vanderboom

What does it feel like to know it is coming?

I mean, really coming, death. That final blankness, beyond which there is . . . nothing. Not in the way that, when you're thirty, you can sagely tell everyone within listening radius how profound you are by expounding on this brief lease we are given, or the fact that the moment we are born, we begin to die. Ye-ah, we know. You can say this in such a knowing tone because you don't really believe it at all: you are going to live forever. You are the one who's going to finally beat this bum deal.

Because it's way too enormous to actually comprehend. Know why? Because you comprehend stuff with your brain, that bowl of blood and gunk that makes your head weigh something like ten pounds. And when the blood ceases to flow, so does your comprehension.

I'm wondering if there's a moment when you can realize that you're living on borrowed time. (Borrowed from who? What's the interest rate?) Is it every moment after the median age of death for your gender, in your milieu? Hit 73, say, and from then on know that by rights you ought to be dead, so if you aren't, you're pretty happy with the world? I mean, when does denial end? Does it ever?

I am wondering this because my mother, this past week, in the words of the sister who was there to witness it, "dodged the bullet, this time." The unspoken remainder of the thought concerns the notion that, at eighty, in already fragile health, the strength it takes to keep throwing yourself sideways out of the way of speeding projectiles remains in very limited quantities. Slowly but surely--have you noticed this yourself?--you don't bounce back "like you once did." In college, remember? How you could so utterly abuse yourself, staying up all night, washing down your stimulants with soporifics, skip breakfast and go straight to dinner (for breakfast), then repeat the whole death-defying deal the next night--and still look dewy fresh. Others your age would want to have you for their next meal, and vice versa. It just didn't take it out of you. As for chronic worries of various sorts, the back troubles, the incipient arthritis--huh?

At fifty, that crap starts catching up with you. Or rather, it has outraced you, and you watch its back disappear down the track up ahead, while you, winded, limp along at half the speed in which you so easily used to do the fifty-yard dash.

I recall my stern Presbyterian grandmother, who raised five boys singlehanded after her husband died way too young (my father remembers his father going on medical calls with nothing but beer in his cancer-riddled stomach, the only sustenance he could tolerate), grasping my hand as she lay in bed in the old-age home into which she checked herself early. She did not want to be a burden on anyone, so she took it upon herself to do it while she was still mobile. She made my hand hurt in hers, the iron of her grip, as if to say: You're not going anywhere, because I have something to tell you. It is pressing. She had to pass on nothing less than the narrative of her life, then she would be ready to go. As if I was going to do something worthwhile with it. Me.

After the long, long stories that at once frightened and bored a small child--stories with morals, the most important things, which I hope I absorbed on some level, though I fear I will one day bore some other small child with something similar--she would fall back. "I am tired. Tired of living. I am ready to stop."

I wonder what she saw coming. A relief? Maybe she was tired of resisting it. Denial takes as much out of us as dancing ourselves into a salty wet mess at 2 a.m. I wonder what it would feel like to welcome it.

I know that my mother is, right now, depressed. How it must feel like it was waiting behind the basement door. She knows it's there, but she's not ready. I don't know how to be ready for it. I don't know how to watch it coming, and say, Well, come on, then.