Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard the phrase before. It’s a chapter in the novel, Playing on the Black Keys, by yours truly. The book was instrumental in putting my son through college and the movie rights are now under consideration. (Harrison Ford is considering the role of Sam Harper). But this is all incidental to the underlying gravity of the phrase. The chapter isn’t about cooking, nor is it about gourmet meals. It’s about The Seven Stages of Life...yours and mine…and, in particular, how we handle that seventh stage.
I won’t waste our time attempting to explain each “course”. Truth be known, they’re often quite different for each of us. I defined my first course as the Innocent Years. Others may divide things up a bit differently depending on their luck, education, finances, and very possibly their talent. The bottom line, however, is that we all go through multiple stages in our lives.
Most of us have a Somewhat Similar Sixth Course. This one usually occurs around the time you retire, and/or begin to run out of steam. Strangely, this course can begin over an unusually broad expanse of time. A little hint to women: We men never see the running-out-of-steam thing coming. One day it just knocks on the door and when we open it, we say, “Who the hell are you?”
But that Seventh Course…ahhhh, that’s the bugger, the nemesis and, of course, the focus of this essay.
Now, I’m actually not talking about death, mostly because, if you really stop and think about it, death is an extremely boring topic and we tend to conflate fear of death with fear of dying. Though our individual lives may be very different, when it comes to being dead, we’re all pretty much the same. Death is something we all eventually share, whether you’re a rock star, have billions of dollars, or have just had a beautiful jewel of a life. There’s no getting around it. Fearing death? Absolutely pointless. Pointless, pointless, pointless.
Mark Twain put it into beautiful perspective, which took a bit of the bite out of the fear for me. Paraphrasing, he said, Prior to your being born on this little blue orb, you didn’t exist. You were, for all intents and purposes…dead. Does that retroactively scare you? Of course not. You and I and everyone else have done a spectacular job of not being here, and I’m pretty certain that you and I will succeed famously in doing so again. (Of course, many devoutly religious people will disagree…and that’s fine.) For the sake of the devoutly religious, I’ll rephrase it a bit: Your time on this planet, in this world in this current body is finite. It will end.
So, what are we left with? Fear of Dying, Fear of Suffering, Fear of Being a Burden…and I’m going to add Fear of having a miserable end of life that doesn’t match up with what may have been a pretty wonderful life till now. Notice there’s an operative common word here: FEAR.
Having lost both my and Pamela’s parents in the not-to0-distant past, I can tell you that heavy-duty finances alone is no way a guarantee of anything even close to happiness. This wasn’t just the case with us, it’s rampant. Walk in unannounced to almost any retirement or nursing home and you will see it. You will hear it. And you will smell it. While there will always be exceptions, for the most part, when you reside there you become a commodity, like a bushel of potatoes to be handled, kept serene/numb and usually sedated. Their goal is to make money and to do so, the more people they can handle the more money they make. With masses of aging bodies, coexisting together, life often takes on a decidedly different and depressing turn.
A gentleman by the name of B.J. Miller recently gave a superb TED lecture on dying in hospitals, nursing homes, and in hospices. Here’s the link: https://www.ted.com/talks/
His point, and he makes it succinctly is that: hospitals and medical care are designed around one thing: Disease. They are NOT designed around people. As such, though they may be able to keep a body alive, they are not at all set up to maintain one’s dignity or quality of life. The best you can hope for in that instance…is a sort of numbness.
At the time of this writing, a fifth state, California, has just voted to provide assistance to people who desire death with dignity if they are in extreme pain and at the terminus of their lives. Whatever you feel about this now, I’m going to make a prediction. Let’s see whether it comes true. Within two years, three more states join. Within ten years, 60-70 % of the states will have come to the conclusion that we deserve as much of a say in how we die…as in how we have lived our lives. Death is just one more phase, albeit the final phase.
I haven’t really worked the metaphor of the Seven-Course Meal backwards for you, have I? Let’s indulge for a moment. Let’s say that it’s a very special evening for you and you go out to that one n’est plus ultra restaurant you love. Each course has been exciting, challenging…even tasty at times: dinner… conversation…stellar, the wine…superb, the crab soup..memorable…an evening of perfection. But… for the very last course, they deliver a plate of assorted grubs, worms and insects to finalize the evening. Someone picks up a grasshopper and examines it. It turns your stomach just to see it . What’s worse, you know that if you eat it, you’re going to spend the evening in the bathroom, worshiping at the porcelain throne. Do you gobble down all of that final course…or do you push back from the table and conclude, “Ya know, this has been an amazing…SIX course meal. Let’s leave it at that.”
This is not, in any way, meant to be an advocacy of people skipping that “last course” if things get a bit depressing. That is a third-rail topic for another day. But for some of us who will face long-term excruciating pain…and there are many forms, loneliness and sorrow can also be excruciating. As you probably have concluded by now, Pamela and I are about as close as two human beings can get. We would not for a second wish that last course to be one of complete and utter misery and suffering and pain. We wouldn’t do it to our beloved pups and we sure as hell wouldn’t do it to each other.
The options we have as the silver tsunami of Boomers, as Miller describes it, are like none other in the history of this planet. With a bit of luck and a bit of outside-the-box creativity, that seventh course can be wild, exciting, and ground-breaking. I would love to get arrested by the cops for putting too much mary jane in the brownies I baked for the rest of the silver-haired “wise” ones. I would love for an also aging Millenial to call up and complain because I was playing Pink Floyd too loud. “Why can’t you old boomers use headphones like the rest of us?” Answer: “Because!!! ” I would love to set up an erotic art show at “the home” that was written up in the local fish wrapper because it was just too graphic. Smell those brownies baking. Taste that Macallan. Is it good over ice cream? Let’s find out. If death is a boring thought…and it is, let’s make that last course…AMAZING!
FWIW: About a year ago I began writing my next novel. I’m about three-quarters finished…I think, though I chose an unlikely topic: What if a whole bunch of Baby Boomers ended up in a typical retirement home, only to decide they might as well make their own last chapter, their own last course…a DOOSY! It’s set in Black Mountain, North Carolina, and it’s a bit like Fawlty Towers meets Woodstock. It is sad and it’s also funny…just like life. Working Title: The Erotic Art Show at… The Olde Logge Inne. I know…the publishers are gonna change the title.
Henry I like your title and can’t wait to read the book!
As always thinking of you both
Pam likes the title, too. Maybe I’ll see if we can keep it. Editors are notoriously conservative.
Interesting, I am closer than you and Pamela to the final course. I hope your movie becomes reality and good fortune to the new book. Have you moved as yet? My class has begun its 18 the year, Harry helped me with the computer this week.
Thanks for the good wishes, but…I don’t think any of us really knows how close or how far we are from that final course.
I thought I would just read your latest article but no….you had to pull me in once again! I read the “American way of death”. It was then in the early 1970’s that I said no way will I go to a funeral home. My body is going to med school. I am registered with the Humanity Gifts Registry. Two years as a cadaver and then cremation. Best part….NO cost to the family! And no $’s to the funeral home.
Then, years later I was subjected to the indignities of assisted living and nursing home care…think, a dozen ways to separate you from your life savings…to take care of Pat’s mom for 19 years. I visualize these institutions as the fabled elephant burial grounds where treasure hunters pick through the bones to get to the ivory. I may not get what I want but I’ve told Pat…feet first out of my own house. Assisted dying…I hate the term suicide…should be legal and valid in all states. Remember the finally scene in ” On the Beach”? Fred Astaire just won a killer race with a souped up sports car he built. He pulled into the garage and gunned the engine. He had a fulfilled end of life smile on his face.
Pat and I are as close as close as you and Pam. Recently out of the clear blue, our long time family doctor said that he was worried about us when one of us goes because he knows how close we are. That’s just a bridge in the distance. We just said goodbye to two of our friends who are also our age and as close as we are. Sadly, they are at that bridge now.
Ya know, one of these days I’m gonna settle down and start tackling some of the truly serious topics.
Yeah, once again, the parallels between our families is astonishing. Went through the concept of brain-dead with Pam’s mom for weeks until we gave the hospital an ultimatum.
Once you’re brain dead….you’re dead.
And, yes, even when Pam and I were dating toward the end of the Jurassic period, her dad seriously worried that if one went the other would go, too. I thought at the time that it was an astute observation…
Regarding friends, when I published the Annus Horribilis essay, I learned volumes from friends and acquaintances…back stories that seemed to come from nowhere. That old adage, “If you think somebody’s got it made……..you just don’t know them very well.” It’s true.
I apologize for not writing “Mr. Harvey” but I feel I know you a little bit from your writings. I found you through your art and have been receiving your blogs ever since.
I must tell you how much I really enjoy reading your thoughts, wisdom and insights into life. You are truly a philosopher.
Thank you again for sharing and keep up the great work. I look forward to reading more.
Thanks for your generosity. My dad was a writer of the Hemingway persuasion, as well as the Teachers Scotch persuasion. As a kid I seriously swore that the last thing I would ever do is get into writing. Dad suffered hugely for every paragraph he wrote. I…attempt to make living breathing characters and let them just go. I had a twelve hour stand-off with a gal named Paige McAllister ( a character who just wouldn’t say what I wanted to say…and not in a cute way.). Eventually, I gave up and mentally said, “Okay, bitch, let’s see where YOU go” She was right and I learned a lesson.
Anyway, thanks. If you like a concept…write in. If you truly HATE a concept, then really write in. That’s part of the game.
I am hoping things are better with Pamela’s health. You were re-acquainted with me right before I had some major stuff. It all turned out well so I understand where you are at. I hope the same is true for her. Loving your weekly blogs. All the best.
So far…so good. I won’t drown you in details. Nobody really wants to hear stuff like that anyway. STILL in the process of selling our house here, though we have a place nailed down in NC. And…it looks like we might be having some luck with the selling.
If you haven’t been to Asheville, it was voted the friendliest small city in America. They aren’t kidding! They also might have added the artiest. Whenever I go there, I feel like I’m home after a long long trip.
Hello dear Henry
Oh treats of hell and hopes of paradise !
one thing at least is certain – this life flees;
One thing is certain and the rest is lies;
the flower that once has blown for ever dies (Khayyam)
thanks for this nice blog, specially for referring to those Mark Twin’s sayings.
peace and love for you both.
Hello my friend,
Glad that you enjoyed it. I always enjoy Khayyam, too.
Most of what Twain said, a hundred years ago is as fresh now as when it was written. A very witty and perceptive man.
Hope your family is doing wonderfully.