by Akim Reinhardt
No, I'm not suicidal. Not that it would matter much if I were. If an adult decides they've had enough and want to call it quits, who are we to say they don't have that "right?" Rights are, after all, little more than make believe: dinner table manners and Christmas gift lists filtered through politics. And if there's only one "right" Santa Clause should honor, it would be the right of a person to cash out at the time of her or his own choosing.
But, barring some painful or debilitating disease or injury in my future, such is not my fate. I have a strong survival instinct. My fight-or-flight works just fine, and while I find life to be meaningless and even ludicrous, I have no interest in offing myself. I'll continue hanging around, not for some hazy, misguided hope that things will get better, but through simple inertia.
Thus, when I say it's perfectly fine if I die now, I am simply acknowledging that I've already lived a very long time, I have no outstanding or important obligations to anyone else, and I've done quite enough.
Should it all end for me today, I'd really have nothing to gripe about. Nor, quite frankly, would my friends and loved ones.
I will soon begin my 50th year. That's as long as anyone needs to live. It's longer, historically, than most people have lived, and I do not think that a particularly a tragic statistic.
Half-a-century gives one the opportunity to experience all that's worth experiencing, particularly nowadays. I've been a child and an adult, relishing my physical prime and now coasting into the early stages of decline. I've filled every family role I wish to fill. I've had more good friends than I'm worth and more kind and willing lovers than I deserve. I've traveled more than would have been imaginable just a hundred years ago. I've pursued a substantial amount of education. I've said everything I need to say and a fair amount of what I'd like to say.
It's not that there's nothing left to do. There's plenty, of course. There's always more one can do and see and experience and feel. But at some point it becomes fair to say that a person, should they reach their expiration date, was not cheated of the opportunity to do and see and experience and feel. Especially a middle class, straight, white, American male of the late 20th and early 21st centuries such as myself. My opportunities have been relatively boundless. Any shortcomings or glaring omissions on my mortal resume are owed to nothing and no one but myself.
However, if I am quick to acknowledge that the world owes me nothing, it is also necessary to ask, what debts do I yet owe?
Drawing up that tally begins with my father.
My father was a dedicated alcoholic and smoker, and a fairly accomplished drug user. I experienced it directly on more levels than many other children of alcoholics because my parents did not separate until I was 19, and because I also worked for my father just about every summer and winter break from ages 13-21. I was not just his son, but also his employee. I not only witnessed him coming home drunk from work, but also regularly got to see him get drunk at work.
After his divorce in 1987, my father never remarried. He lived alone, eventually with a dog, and during his last several years of independence, with a roommate he didn't particularly like.
His physical health began deteriorating when he was only 48. It started with his legs. Unable to stand for long, he couldn't do much of the work anymore (he was a small general contractor). He never had more than a couple of guys working for him at a time, and almost all of them doubled as drinking buddies, so he had no one responsible enough to pick up the slack. His business soon foundered. He was on Social Security Disability by his early 50s.
My father had hardy Carolina farm boy genes; the booze and cigarettes couldn't seem to kill him. They just took him apart piece by piece. About three years ago, despite his protestations, it had finally become evident even to him that he could no longer live on his own. The better part of a year in hospitals and crappy rehab facilities in Yonkers will do that to you. But by that point, he'd overshot any chance of moving into an assisted living facility and needed to go straight to a nursing home.
My sister helped out with the paperwork, and we got him into a home about a mile or so from my house in Baltimore. During the last two years of his life, I visited him almost daily, bringing him cigarettes and the occasional pint of ice cream. I was able to make sure that his final turn on life's stage, while neither luxurious nor terribly interesting, at least included the basics, some good conversation, and a modicum of dignity. He died last summer.
Now that it's over, I can't honestly say whether I repaid a debt to my father, or if he still owed me for his parental shortcomings. I don't know how to calculate that and have absolutely no inclination to; for the most part, I really don't think of life in those terms. In retrospect, he simply needed help and I helped him. Now he is beyond needing or helping. There is nothing left that I might do for him. And the rest of my family is in good shape.
My sister lives with her husband and young daughter in California. They are a healthy, happy, loving family and financially stable. My mother is still in the same Bronx apartment building we moved to in 1971. Her second marriage has now lasted longer than the two decades she spent with my father. She is in stunningly good health for her age, but when her time comes, my sister knows that it wall fall more to her, as our father fell more to me.
I live with my girlfriend and her two cats. She is a wonderful person. She does well alone, and if she were so inclined, could do better than me.
Thus, the closest thing I have to an outstanding debt are two small children not of my loins.
I'm quite close to a good friend's 3 year old son. But between them, his two parents have three siblings of their own with families, and a fourth without. So should anything happen to this little boy's parents, I would not, despite my unofficial godfather status, be the one to take him on. It would be off to New York or California or Maine with him.
The same, however, cannot be said of my niece, who will turn 3 in February. Should some sad fate befall her parents, I am next in line to raise her and, given the other options, probably the only really good choice, despite my lack of experience and lifelong desire to not have children. I would parent her and do my best, quickly growing to love her far more than I already do.
Thus, for at least the next 15+ years, I am on the hook as a parental backup to a puffy cheeked little girl who lives nearly 3,000 miles and sees me once or twice a year. Other than that, however, I am free to die sans obligation. And in fact, if I did die, the niece and girlfriend could split the house and pension account, making them a fair bit happier at the end of the day.
All of this is to say that I am at peace. Not with my life, which is still and may forever be plagued by anxieties and frustrations. Rather, I am at peace with the prospect of my inevitable demise.
I have not feared death, in an intellectual sense anyway, for quite some time. But beyond that, I also have no qualms about it.
I am going to die. Perhaps soon. Perhaps for not yet another half-century. But whenever it should come to pass that I take my last, I will have no complaints about the life that preceded it. I've loved more than I've hated, found more than I lost, and learned enough to know that there are not any great revelations or truths to supercede the rigid arc upon which we all travel: we live and we die.
Of course, should I go on living, I do reserve the right to amend these sentiments. But if not, let me now simply say in advance, thank you and good night. Go in peace.
Akim Reinhardt's website is the ThePublicProfessor.com