© 2009 Keith McWalter
I’ve reached an age (let’s say late fifties, euphemistically) when one begins to count things, to wonder how many more of this or that will be on offer in this little go-round we call life. The sands of time do run, and eventually you can begin to count the grains.
I just returned, for instance, from a vacation with my family on St. Barths , a wonderful Caribbean island I’ve visited more than a dozen times over the last couple of decades, and found myself wondering how many more visits I might make or if, perchance, another visit might be the last.
This isn’t morbid – I’ve received no scary news from any doctors, nor do I feel my odds of participating in the next airplane disaster are any greater than the next person’s — it’s just good housekeeping. You want to know when you’re doing something for what might be the last – or close to last – time. It would be no different if I had been told that I had an incurable and invariably fatal wasting disease, but that the good news was that it advances very slowly and I had about 20 or 30 years to live (which, when you think about it, is what everyone in their late fifties should be told on principle).
I can hear my dear wife protesting in the background, “But you’re young!” Well yes, and I might even be “young for my age” (what we used to call, when we were younger, “immature”), but that doesn’t mean we can’t quantify how much of this older version of youth – and whatever unnameable state follows – is left to us. It certainly makes one much more mindful (a quality my dear wife usually applauds). Both of my parents died in their eighties, and I can, as they say, do the math.
Throughout life there are places you leave and you know you’ll never see them again, either because they become off-limits or you can’t bear to go back. I remember motoring across Priest Lake, Idaho with my then-wife under a cloudy sky in a dingy driven by her father, looking back at the shoreline where their family cabin stood among the tall pines, and knowing in that moment that I was seeing that cabin and, probably, Priest Lake, for the last time. I was right; we were divorced within a year, and Priest Lake is now no less unavailable to me than if it had been lifted from the earth and deposited on the far side of the moon.
Then there are the places I’ve never been and have begun to wonder if I’ll ever see: Africa, India, Bora Bora, the Great Barrier Reef. I know I’ll get to some of them, but neither time nor my patience with air travel is infinite.
On the other hand, there are other things I intend to make sure I’ve already done for the last time: pass another professional qualification exam, get divorced, or worry about making partner, for instance.
We all think we have more time than we do. We’re wired that way. It’s a happy remnant, I think, of the lesser animals’ total obliviousness to time and mortality, that wonderful, guileless, trusting look in the eye of the family dog about to be put down. The horror we experience when we imagine the passengers on the doomed plane in the last seconds of flight is the horror of that cozy, familiar fiction of our immortality abruptly denied, the chances cut short, the things left undone and suddenly undoable, the places and people never to be seen again.
We shake our heads and put the paper down, grateful that we have, maybe, one more time.