Watching the first episode of a new HBO series called “Barry,” a familiar face startled me. It was none other than The Fonz himself—Henry Winkler—my favorite character from a sitcom called “Happy Days” in the early 1970s.
But, oh what a change! Far from the brash, young hipster of my memory, Winkler had turned old. So old that he had gray hair. So old that his face sagged in wrinkles. “Oh my God,” I thought, “what happened?”
Then I realized we are roughly the same age.
It’s the sort of thing that occurs often at a certain stage in life. You see pictures of old friends who you no longer recognize. You begin noticing that, almost always, you’re the oldest person at social gatherings. And one day you walk into a high school reunion thinking you’ve made a mistake. “Wait,” you say to yourself, “this is a bunch of old people—I must have gotten the wrong address.”
Alas, though, there’s no mistake; a grim reality of which my 11-year-old son never tires of reminding me. “Hey Dad, what year were you born?” he loves asking, though he knows the answer perfectly well. “Oh, so you’re 73. You’ll be dead by the time I’m grown up.”
Ahh, death. Funny how much more you think of it the older you get. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, partly because of the global pandemic that’s killed millions, as well as a recent spate of mass shootings in the US. But also because of things I’ve been reading.
First, there was a piece in the New York Times recounting the tale of a nun who keeps a ceramic skull on her desk at the Daughters of St. Paul convent in Boston. She also has a collection of skull mugs, skull rosaries and several photos of skull tattoos.
“My life is going to end,” Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, 40, told the paper, “and I have a limited amount of time. We naturally tend to think of our lives as kind of continuing and continuing.”
Her antidote: a worldwide Catholic movement called memento mori, which literally means remember you must die. “We try to suppress the thought of death,” the Sister says, “or escape it, or run away from it because we think that’s where we’ll find happiness. But it’s actually in facing the darkest realities that we find light in them.”
At the other end of the spectrum sits Ingemar Patrick Linden, a former New York University philosophy professor whose book, The Case Against Death, was recently excerpted in an academic journal called MIT Press Reader. “This may sound persuasive,” the professor writes of what he calls the “prevailing” view represented by the likes of Sister Alethia, “but we should not buy it. Despite its dominance, its distinguished defenders, and its impressive provenance [it] is false. If death is the end then it is simply awful, and it is time we admit it.”
I suppose my view lies somewhere between those two extremes. I still remember the first time I witnessed death, in the guise of a little green turtle. He was a childhood pet that, every once in a while, we’d set out in the backyard under a glass bowl for sun. One day my father forgot and left him there too long. I was the one who found him, a lifeless parched shell that had once been a beloved presence, now forever gone.
These days I draw comfort from various sources. Recently a long-time Boston Globe reporter, Jack Thomas, discovering he had a fatal cancer, wrote a touching essay for Globe Magazine chronicling his thoughts. “Editing the final details of one’s life,” Thomas wrote, “is like editing a story for the final time. It’s the last shot an editor has at making corrections, the last rewrite before the roll of the presses.”
Another writer I’d never heard of, Aracelis Gonzalez Asendorf, published one of the most beautiful essays I’ve ever read—entitled “My Dead”—in a literary magazine called Brevity. “I see him now,” she writes, “my father, in the wrinkles around my eyes, and the set of my mouth. My brother keeps him company there in the shape of my nose. My dead have taken over my body. I see them daily. My grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, brother.”
The only one missing, Asendorf continues, is her recently deceased husband, whose presence she sees in their children. “He’s in their faces, in their eyes and brows. He’s in their hands, and body, and heart…And, if I look carefully and steadily at my children, I catch glimpses of myself—then I know we’re all together—my dead, my husband, and me.”
If immortality exists, perhaps that’s it.
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David Haldane’s award-winning memoir, “Nazis & Nudists,” is available on Amazon. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is a journalist, author and radio broadcaster currently dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.