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It must be this hovering knowledge, that two-ton safe swaying on a frayed rope just over my head, that makes everyone so glad to see me again. A smooth fox terrier of ours named Harry was full of surprises. Back in the city, he established his personality and dashing good looks on the neighborhood to the extent that a local artist executed a striking head-on portrait in pointillist oils, based on a snapshot of him she’d sneaked in Central Park. Not a ghost but a presence, alive as before and in the same instant gone again. I am walking on Ludlow Lane, in Snedens, with my two young daughters, years ago on a summer morning. Hours of talk and sleep (mine, not hers) and renewal—the abandoned mills at Lawrence, Mass., Cat Mousam Road, the Narramissic River still there—plus a couple of nights together, with the summer candles again.Wildly sociable, like others of his breed, he grew a fraction more reserved in maturity, and learned to cultivate a separate wagging acquaintance with each fresh visitor or old pal he came upon in the living room. Harry took his leave (another surprise) on a June afternoon three years ago, a few days after his eighth birthday. This happened often, and I almost came to count on it, knowing that it wouldn’t last. People my age and younger friends as well seem able to recall entire tapestries of childhood, and swatches from their children’s early lives as well: conversations, exact meals, birthday parties, illnesses, picnics, vacation B. I’m in my late thirties; they’re about nine and six, and I’m complaining about the steep little stretch of road between us and our house, just up the hill. Then I say that one day I’ll be really old and they’ll have to hold me up. Stuff I get excited about or depressed about all the time. Perhaps with a blog recently posted on Facebook by a woman I know who lives in Australia. Friends in great numbers now, taking me to dinner or cooking in for me. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K. To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Now, still facing you, if I cover my left, or better, eye with one hand, what I see is a blurry encircling version of the ceiling and floor and walls or windows to our right and left but no sign of your face or head: nothing in the middle. No, it’s more as if I’d been a catcher for the Hall of Fame pitcher Candy Cummings, the inventor of the curveball, who retired from the game in 1877.At second hand, we have become death’s expert witnesses; we know more about death than morticians, feel as much at home with it as those poor bygone schlunks trying to survive a continent-ravaging, low-digit-century epidemic. book club or a bridge club; I’m not taking up Mandarin or practicing the viola. I’ll call on you, one by one, and you can tell us your name and maybe what your dad or your mom does for a living. Years went by and they went on trying, but no luck. “I put in your name and my name and little Teddy’s name and weight, and when we’d be home again and, you know, ready to see friends.In a sporadic effort to keep my brain from moldering, I’ve begun to memorize shorter poems—by Auden, Donne, Ogden Nash, and more—which I recite to myself some nights while walking my dog, Harry’s successor fox terrier, Andy. They liked each other, so the work was always a pleasure, but they grew a bit sad along the way. I have the receipt.”“Eight hundred and thirty-seven dollars! I handed it back to her and she counted up the words and said, ‘How many insertions? ”I heard this tale more than fifty years ago, when my first wife, Evelyn, and I were invited to tea by a rather elegant older couple who were new to our little Rockland County community.I had a date to have the joint replaced by a famous knee man (he’s listed in the Metropolitan Opera program as a major supporter) but changed course at the last moment, opting elsewhere for injections of synthetic frog hair or rooster combs or something, which magically took away the pain. These names are best kept in mind rather than boxed and put away somewhere.I walk around with a cane now when outdoors—“Stop ” I hear my wife, Carol, admonishing—which gives me a nice little edge when hailing cabs. “He and I play in a mandolin quartet every Wednesday night at the Hotel Edison. Old letters are engrossing but feel historic in numbers, photo albums delightful but with a glum after-kick like a chocolate caramel.
We geezers carry about a bulging directory of dead husbands or wives, children, parents, lovers, brothers and sisters, dentists and shrinks, office sidekicks, summer neighbors, classmates, and bosses, all once entirely familiar to us and seen as part of the safe landscape of the day. The surprise, for me, is that the accruing weight of these departures doesn’t bury us, and that even the pain of an almost unbearable loss gives way quite quickly to something more distant but still stubbornly gleaming. Family ice-skating up near Harlem in the nineteen-eighties, with the Park employees, high on youth or weed, looping past us backward to show their smiles.The dead have departed, but gestures and glances and tones of voice of theirs, even scraps of clothing—that pale-yellow Saks scarf—reappear unexpectedly, along with accompanying touches of sweetness or irritation. Recent and not so recent surveys (including the six-decades-long Grant Study of the lives of some nineteen-forties Harvard graduates) confirm that a majority of us people over seventy-five keep surprising ourselves with happiness. Our children are adults now and mostly gone off, and let’s hope full of their own lives. If our wives or husbands are still with us, we sense a trickle of contentment flowing from the reliable springs of routine, affection in long silences, calm within the light boredom of well-worn friends, retold stories, and mossy opinions.Our dead are almost beyond counting and we want to herd them along, pen them up somewhere in order to keep them straight. Also the distant whoosh of a surfaced porpoise outside our night windows.Well, not yet, not soon, or probably not, I would console myself, and that welcome but then tediously repeated postponement felt in time less like a threat than like a family obligation—tea with Aunt Molly in Montclair, someday soon but not now. A weariness about death exists in me and in us all in another way, as well, though we scarcely notice it.Death, meanwhile, was constantly onstage or changing costume for his next engagement—as Bergman’s thick-faced chess player; as the medieval night-rider in a hoodie; as Woody Allen’s awkward visitor half-falling into the room as he enters through the window; as W. Fields’s man in the bright nightgown—and in my mind had gone from spectre to a waiting second-level celebrity on the Letterman show. Some people I knew seemed to have lost all fear when dying and awaited the end with a certain impatience. We have become tireless voyeurs of death: he is on the morning news and the evening news and on the breaking, middle-of–the-day news as well—not the celebrity death, I mean, but the everyone-else death. A dead family, removed from a ramshackle faraway building pocked and torn by bullets. The dead in floods and hurricanes and tsunamis, in numbers called “tolls.” The military dead, presented in silence on your home screen, looking youthful and well combed.