Paris: I think that heaven is right here in the midst of us.
When I’m conscious enough, I can walk through heaven’s gates at any moment, and I can stay in heaven as long as I can be present, connected, grateful, creative and lighthearted—in other words, as long as I can stay poised.
But at my humble level of human development, getting into and sustaining a heavenly state requires feeling good physically, and at 69 1/2 I don’t feel good some of the time. People find it challenging to stay poised when we’re suffering poor health, illness, frailty and other handicaps.
Oops, I’d better leave “handicaps” out of that list of physical distractions: In London’s Trafalgar Square the other day, having just left the splendid National Gallery, we lounged with hundreds of people on the steps overlooking the big square with its huge fountain and statue of Lord Nelson above it. Another sculpture in the square, high atop a stone pedestal, was a white marble sculpture of a woman chosen by Great Britain to be honored for her achievements. The sculpture is much bigger than life size, and when you look up at it, you are startled to see a naked woman sitting, short-cropped hair on a head held high as if looking off into a future, without arms and legs—not even stubs– and majestically pregnant.
She is the first UK quadriplegic to give birth to a baby. Ah, the human spirit, how beautiful it is in full expression of love!
Leave out handicaps as a barrier to heaven.
Except for short periods of childhood illness, I’ve felt good all my life. As a kid, my body was a source of pleasure. I was an athlete and loved the physicality of football, wrestling, track and baseball. I was thin and fast, always on the run, movement as ecstasy. For the next five decades I continued to be in robust health in spite of eating pretty much whatever I pleased in large amounts, smoking several hundred thousand cigarettes, drinking alcohol as a constant celebration and sampling most of the drugs in fashion at any particular time, My body has been a pleasure machine.
Now, here I am at 69 1/2 paying for these pseudo heavens. I tell Mary I don’t feel good as we queue up at the Muse’e du Louvre, one of main reasons we’re in Paris. We’ve walked from our nice Hotel d’Orsay a couple of blocks from the Seine, across a bridge, through Jardin des Tuileries, the gardens next to the Louvre, and up to the museum’s dramatic entrance, I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid. I’ve been feeling good physically for most of the first two weeks of our trip, and have been delighted to lose a few pounds with walking for miles most days and eating more lightly than at home, having accommodated Europe’s stingy portions.
As we enter the Louvre, however, I tax Mary’s generosity with the details of my physical malaise: I don’t feel any energy; my legs feel dead; my feet are numb, and I can’t imagine walking all over this vast place, over unforgiving stone floors, up and down many stairways, then standing for hours viewing the famous stuff. I don’t know why I’m feeling so awful, but it worries me and humbles me to admit it. I feel like a 90-year-old, feeble.
Physically and spiritually, I flounder, wounded, far from heaven’s gate.
Mary, eager to see the heavenly treasures inside and feeling good at 60 as usual, isn’t sympathetic. She suggests that I do the best I can. You would make a lousy nurse, I tell her. First stop: Venus de Milo. I try to mobilize myself but can’t enjoy it. Her arms are broken off. I don’t quite get why this sculpture is so famous.
My body is suffering and my consciousness is limp as we move on down endless hallways and up some steps to the Winged Victory of Samothrace, a famous, sculpture of a woman with large wings stretched out behind her. Dramatic. No head.
Still feeling like old people who have passed the milestone marking the end of good health, I’m grateful for a stone ledge to rest on and observe our fellow art lovers from all over the world who are dutifully snapping away with their ubiquitous cameras. Do they take these pictures home and show them to their neighbors? Do the neighbors feign interest?
From my perch, I can see all of the tourists around the statue. I notice something startling: I’m the oldest person in sight! There’s nobody even close to my age. I estimate the number of people around the statue—easily 100+. It’s primarily a young crowd, people in their 20’s and 30’s, with some young children. A smaller percentage in their 40’s and 50’s. I’m the only white head. I’m in the 99th percentile! This is something of an epiphany. I’m out of place here, in a way.
Perhaps people my age have adjusted, acknowledged their maladies and wisely stayed home.
From now on for the rest of the trip, I assess the age of crowds. At the Eiffel Tower we stand in a queue of over 100 people to get in, then a similar queue for the second level elevator to the top. Not one other person with white hair in either queue. Once at the top, I’m the oldest viewer of Paris. Thankfully, my legs and feet feel fine on this chilly night, and I thoroughly enjoy our time on the Tower, even the two thirty-minute queues going up and another ten-minute queue for the elevator going down. Another day, we visit the Galleries Lafayette, one of the spectacular shopping centers in Paris. On floor after floor, in store after store, I’m the oldest person in sight. The shopping crowd is almost all decades younger. What am I doing here? My peers are at home resting.
Back at the Louvre: I’ve had my epiphany about my age at the Winged Victory. I reluctantly rise from my resting place, and stagger off down the hall behind the indefatigable Mary, searching for Vermeer’s painting, The Lacemaker. This wing is a maze and we can’t find it. In spite of not feeling good, I’m trying to be in heaven. After all, I’m aware that this is the only life I’ve got and I want to be grateful, joyful and lighthearted. I’m failing on all counts.
Mary asks a guard for directions to The Lacemaker. We follow them but strike out again. We will never see the Lacemaker in our lifetime, except in books. Can’t find The Raft of the Medina, either.
We finally do find Michelangelo’s sculpture of two slaves emerging from stone. My eyes, however, are on a stone bench behind the slaves. From there, I observe the back of the statue. After seeing Michelangelo’s exquisite Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, I’m a bit disappointed. Walked all this way for this. Out of a sense of museum duty, I get up and join Mary in front of the slaves, identifying with their permanent torpor.
We walk and walk some more, up steps and down long hallways lined with statues, Egyptian artifacts, Greek artifacts, Roman artifacts, my only thought the blessed end somewhere in the distance. I am an antiquity among the antiquities. Finally, we find the most-viewed art object in this vast place, Leonardo de Vinci’s painting, Mona Lisa.
By some miracle, I’m beginning to feel better. Has all this walking got my blood flowing? Has it revived my heart? It’s a health mystery, but my body hurts less, and my spirits rise a bit, as we enter a huge two-story room.
There are very large paintings on both sides of the room, but Mona is brilliantly-framed, all alone on the far wall. A large crowd of viewers press against the ropes which keep us ten feet away from the precious painting. Mona has a live, full time guard who stops the tourists from taking photos. Some sneak a shot anyway, and get chastised.
Mona smiles at us.
We work our way to the front and spend some time there appreciating this creation, then notice a live work of art nearby, a statuesque young woman standing alone, off to the side, her back to Mona. She is beautiful, with the dreamy far-off look of a model, not present exactly, but here to be viewed herself. Yes, she must be a model, about 6 feet tall in black knee-high boots with 5-inch heels, inconceivable footwear for the rigors of walking the Louvre.
I myself have spent a hundred bucks for some sensible Rockport walkers for this trip. She wears a gray wool full-length coat in this quite warm building, statuesque, holding her red umbrella, as if posing for us, in case we get bored with Mona. She has caught the attention of quite a few of us.
My heart lightens, and I laugh with Mary as we move, at last, toward the pyramid, the exit and the soft, after-sunset glow over Paris. I realize that I feel better than I have all day and am up for walking back to the hotel, another mile away.
How I feel physically has become unpredictable and random.
Generally, my body retains much of its youthful vigor, but on days like this one, death seems to move in closer, sitting on his mat just behind me, prepared to tap me on the shoulder at an unexpected moment. That time used to feel a long way off, but now it seems more imminent.
Feeling good, as I have almost my entire life, I took my body for granted, and—in my arrogance—I felt that only people of limited consciousness are fragile and sick. Now, however, feeling fragile myself, I maintain a keen awareness of how my body is doing. I can do a physical inventory at the drop of a prescription:
- BMI—15 pounds into the bulging range
- Coronary calcium score: over 400: “Extensive calcified plaque present. Very high coronary artery disease risk”
- Heart disease, initial diagnosis: left main coronary artery 60% blocked. At the age of 66, I was put on a gurney in a helicopter and flown to the hospital in Phoenix for possible angioplasty or/or surgery:
“Having understood the risks and benefits, the patient signed the consent form and agreed to proceed. The patient was prepped and draped in the usual manner. The right femoral groin area was anesthetized with 2% Xylocaine. Utilizing the modified Seldinger technique and over the wire exchange method an 8 Fr sheath was placed in the right femoral artery. Then employing a guiding catheter of 8 Fr, we set up measurements and advanced the flow/wave wire into the distal circumflex bed. We infused adenosine in the usual manner, up to 40 meg. There was no significant gradient calculation that suggested therapy was required. We likewise did the same in the left anterior descending artery. In fact, the left anterior descending artery showed slightly more impressive requirement for therapy, though short of standard data, than the left circumflex. CONCLUSION: The left circumflex does not merit therapy at this time. Follow up study would probably be useful.”
- Good HDL: not enough. Triglycerides: too much.
- High blood pressure from hardening of the arteries: Diovan HCT does the trick, but the diuretic has me in the bathroom often, and on trips I need to keep an eye peeled for WCs.
- Unable to pass the driver’s test but good with glasses.
The doctor wants a blood test for prostate cancer. I say to the doctor, “How will I know the results?”
“We’ll send a card,” he says.
“You’ll send a card if I have cancer?”
“I’ll call you if you have cancer,” he says, laughing.
Very funny. I flinched every time the phone rang for the next week.
- Half my teeth replaced with bridges and dentures and/or covered with crowns.
- Peripheral neuropathy, causing numbness of feet and lower legs: no known cure or treatment. Live with it.
Other than that, I’m perfect.
Sense of humor: completely in tact. In fact, this inventory makes me laugh out loud. That’s because at the moment, I feel very good, so all of these physical realities seem distant, abstract, having nothing to do with me. Perhaps they don’t, if we’re mainly a soul carried around by this aging vehicle, our body.
Anyway, I want to be indifferent to death and I am, most of the time, and especially when I’m feeling good.
Our physical life will end. Life on this earth is sweet and it will be taken away. The people who have died over millions of years could not stop their death, and I cannot stop mine. I suppose my recent meditations on my own physical limitations, on my age, on being the oldest person in many places we visited, all came to a conclusion here.
Ah, yes, I will die.
I invent the Outguess Death Game, its rules and the chips we have to play:
- Heart disease is the top cause of death in the U.S.
- Median age at death of American males: 73.2 (you women get 6 more years!)
73.2 – 69.5 = 3.7 years left. Yikes. Wait a minute–I’m lucky, so let’s factor that in.
- Of all the people who ever lived on the earth, one-half died before their 18th birthday. Good, I’m in the upper 50th percentile
- Most Americans die of natural causes and most die in some kind of health facility, rather than at home
- According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, male smokers lose 13.5 years of life compared to non-smokers
- Most of us (four out of five) make it to age 65, and if we do, we’ll get on average another 18 years. Hmm….65 + 18 = 83 – 13.5 for smoking = 69.5
WAIT A MINUTE, I WANT MORE TIME.
I need an edge, so what about genetics? I’d better revise the Outguess Death Game:
- Mom is still alive at 91! 92 in two months, living independently, driving the Southern California freeways at 75mph, calling her Congressmen regularly to protest every move the Republicans make. “Keep up the good work, Mom,” I frequently tell her, “I’m watching my genetic fate as you lead the way.” “Well,” she says sometimes, “I think I’m ready to call it quits.” “No, no,” I say, “not yet.”
- Dad died at 65, but he was youngest to die among six siblings—most of whom made it into their 80’s in spite of hard living– having destroyed himself with two packs of unfiltered Camels and at least a pint of whiskey every 24 hours. I’m healthier than Dad was.
- Great Grandma Fuller—103
- Grandpa and Grandma Janssen—88 and 89.
- Grandpa and Grandma Stokes—early 90’s.
So, I turn to ask Death, who is waiting to tap my shoulder from his mat just behind me (hands in his lap at the moment), “Do I have any time for crap? Do I have any time for resentment, self-pity, anger, sorrow, self-indulgence? Do I have any time to waste in any way?”
“No, you have no time.”
“Hey, I knew that. I was only kidding you,” I say. That guy never had a sense of humor. Deadly serious, you might say.
“Thankya,” I say and laugh, still alive, my cup filled to the brim!
So, here’s a paradox: to be in a heavenly state, I need to be aware of death. Aware of death, I know I have no time for crap. Aware of death, this moment has power, value. Aware of death, I know I have no time to spare. I have no time to waste. I must get to loving life and loving others now.
Time is too slow for those who wait
Time is too swift for those who fear
Time is too long for those who grieve
Time is too short for those that laugh
But for those who love, for those who really love,
Time, sweet time, precious time, lovely time
“Time Is” A Beautiful Day
Amsterdam: Mary and I sit on the bank of one of Amsterdam’s many canals waiting for the tour boat to show up in a few minutes. It’s the end of October, but the pleasant fall weather has held, and the sun is shining today.
A row of trees lines the opposite side of the canal, and their leaves are falling into the water and floating away in little flotillas. The trees are mostly gold, but still hold some green. A couple of them have no green remaining, having aged faster than their brothers, leaving their tops bare.
As usual, I play the Outguess Death Game: which tree best represents my life at this stage? I pick the one directly across the canal from me, a perfect oval of gold leaves, a bit of green still present, no bare spots. Let’s see: if this tree leafed out in April, it’s had leaves for seven months and will have maybe another month. Yikes, one-eighth of its season to go. That would be less than 80 for me. Maybe those leaves will hang on for another month and one-half, I think, manipulating the game data, as usual.
I draw Mary into the game. “Which tree is you?” I ask her. “That one,” she says instantly, pointing to the greenest tree.
“Sounds right,” I say, enviously. I sing out loud to her:
Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you
These precious days, I’ll spend with you.
“September Song” Peter, Paul and Mary
I put my arm around her shoulders. “You promised me 25 years,” she says with her firm faith, 10 years now into our marriage.
15 to go. A good number.
15 years of heaven.
NOTE: I wrote this piece several years ago. Mary claims that the 25 year plan for our marriage should be revised to a 35 year plan. I say yes.