We buried Aunty Rose on Sunday.
She lived for 99 years before she died, including a quarter-century as the wife of my great-grandfather’s brother Charles, then nearly five decades as a widow and woman of the world, travelling far and wide for as long as her curiosity and good health endured.
While the former may never have completely run out, the latter proved rather inhibitive in her final years, which she spent at various assisted living facilities in a steadily declining physical state, although her mind remained impressively agile under the circumstances.
The graveside funeral service was attended by two dozen members of the family—four generations’ of cousins, nieces and nephews—and in his eulogy, the presiding rabbi noted, “Rose had many friends, and she outlived nearly all of them.”
Whenever someone dies fairly young, with a large circle of acquaintances still in the proverbial prime of their lives, we consider it a tragedy. We say that such unfortunate people shuffled off “before their time.” We understand that everyone has to die sooner or later, but when it happens so early, it somehow seems unfair.
Having saturated our national death discussion with those who leave us too soon, rarely do we ruminate on the possibility that some people live far too long. That there might exist a group of human specimens who go “after their time,” not before.
To ponder this uncomfortable prospect, we might begin with the biggest question of all: What is the meaning of life? Or, if you prefer: At what point, and under what circumstances, does one’s life cease to mean anything at all?
The comic George Carlin once asserted in a stand-up bit that the principal objective of life is simply to avoid dying. He is hardly alone in this view. Scores of Homo sapiens believe with all their hearts that life is sacred and an end in itself and that, by definition, one cannot overstay one’s welcome on planet Earth.
Religious folks who assume this outlook do so under the assumption that life is a gift from God that can neither be taken for granted nor taken into one’s own hands.
However, nonbelievers can take the live-as-long-as-possible view as well, seeing this life as the only available option and thus something that would be pointless to give up. Isn’t something, however unpleasant, always better than nothing?
Against this approach to life, the universe and everything, one might consider the meaning-of-life question on a micro level. That is: What is a particular individual’s purpose, and what happens when he or she is no longer able to fulfill it?
Clint Eastwood’s 2004 film Million Dollar Baby was about a woman who believed she was put on Earth for one reason: To box. Boxing was all that she knew, and it was all that she was. (Spoiler alert!) When she is suddenly and violently rendered unable to ever again enter the ring, she decides she no longer has any reason to be, and demands of her best and only friend to allow her to die.
The movie generated a torrent of debate when it was first released, and no one has to explain why. Most people’s fortunes are not as dramatic as Hilary Swank’s in that film, but the underlying issues of life, death and free will are, by definition, universal.
A truism we might derive, as it relates to the subject at hand, is that the true bookends of a person’s life are not the dates of birth and death, but rather the moments when one does what one is truly meant to do.
Of course, this all depends upon what one’s purpose happens to be, and by no means is such a concept static throughout one’s life. It can change with the circumstances, and often does.
Aunty Rose, for one, might have lost her looks and her ability to travel (and to walk and eat solid food), but she sure kept good company for the rest of us in the meanwhile. She enriched the lives of others, even as her own life had plainly ground to a halt. Perhaps that was enough.
That is, except for all the obvious discomfort she was in. As much as we appreciated having her around, we could not help but wonder if she any longer considered the whole thing worth it. This unhappy thought, in turn, made the visits to the nursing home progressively less enjoyable for us who knew, as she did, that it was only a matter of time before the end finally came, leading to the even more unhappy thought that perhaps it was for the best.