Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Aging, Death, Mortality and Angst: Happy Birthday, Dad!

Signs of decay
I'm getting old and signs of decay are everywhere! Madonna's turning 50 and looking like shit. Isaac Hayes is dead at 65. Prince just had a hip replacement. The famous Wall Arch in Utah's Arches Nat'l Monument has collapsed. Kids are younger all the time. Youth has become this exclusive club that I've been kicked out of and have no chance talking my way back into. My skin is losing elasticity and my hair's turning gray and I have to monitor cholesterol levels. I fucking hate it!


Happy birthday, Dad!
Today was my dad's—James Benjamin Altemus'—birthday. It's weird, the more time that goes by between now and his death, the less I think of him. This feels like a betrayal somehow. Like I'm a shitty son. Of course, I don't feel like I should constantly mourn him or obsess over him, but I figured I'd think of him more often than I do. 

When I do think of him lately, it's connected with mortality. Much to my embarrassment and frustration, I've become obsessed with my own mortality since his demise. It's like he was this buffer between me and death and now that he's gone, the buffer's gone. I'm next in line.

Now, I loved my dad. I've grieved his death. I've missed him. I've talked to him. I've imagined his presence. And I've honored him and his memory. But for the first time since his passing, it occurred to me yesterday I'm angry with him. (No one's ever accused me of being excessively rational.)

Really, though, I'm pissed that I'm left with this burden, this knowing that I'm going to die. That I can't run from it, hide from it, trick it somehow. That no matter what I do, I'm on a train that has only one destination and there's no getting off. 

Look, I've known this in my head since my early teens. But to really know it in your bones, in your gut, is a whole other thing. And ever since dad shuffled off his mortal coil four years ago, I've been deeply, irritatingly intimate with the knowledge. I've been slimed and I can't wash it off. 

Some background
It started when I realized he was dying. After a week in the hospital with little improvement after a nasty bout of flu kicked his ass, we moved him to a nursing home. He was clearly on his way out. I found myself unable to sleep through the night. I'd wander my house and think about going to the home to be with him. I think I must have believed I shouldn't sleep, lest I miss any time to spend with him, even if I wasn't in the same room. Actually, I don't know what I was thinking. I never felt more connected to him and more selfless than in those three weeks that he took to complete his dying process.

My obsession with mortality reached its nadir about a year ago or so. I found myself unable to sleep soundly several nights of the week and was on my way to becoming an insomniac. Worse, while I lay awake (or after I arose to putz around) I would focus on my eventual death. I was experiencing angst that would make a teenager blush. Serious, brutal existential angst. A recognition that sometime, whether tomorrow or in 70 years, I would be no more. And whether I was an Einstein or a homeless bum didn't matter. What difference does it make how I affect this world? I'm still going to be gone. The pieces of consciousness that make up my personality will be no more. 

And this drove me crazy. I writhed in psychic anguish. I felt I was staring into a black abyss that would consume me, if not now, then eventually. I realized that underneath all of my belief in spiritual possibilities, I—or at least a big chunk of me—was an atheist. I was furious, sad, lost.

It was absurd. 

Moving forward, then back
This winter, for reasons that stretched back farther and deeper than my newfound (though profound) mental discomfort, I started a course of antidepressants. A pleasant and unexpected side effect was that the anguish died down and I was able to sleep full nights again. And such had been the case until about a month or so ago. 

Though, not feeling the sheer agony and brutal fear that I felt last year, I've been once again focusing on my decay and death. (It seems though, that this time I have company, as Beck's latest album, Modern Guilt, is infused with the themes.) Anyway, it's back. And I'm sick of it. 

Because obsessing over aging and dying isn't doing me a damn bit of good. It's not making me a better person or giving me wisdom or helping me to enjoy life more. To the contrary, it depresses the hell out of me. The worst part is that I'm losing my sense of optimism, my sense of spirituality. No, the worst part is knowing that this is part of my birthright as a human being. This is pedestrian. I mean, who among us hasn't blanched at the thought our death? Which religion or spiritual sect or set of rites isn't birthed from the realization that our flesh will turn to dust and we will cease to be? How fucking tedious and useless.

What I want, what I'm craving right now, is the sense of limitless possibilities that I once had. The ability to disregard thoughts of mortality and just live. I'm not sure how to get back to that or how to redirect my thoughts away from the dead end they've been hanging out in lately. I'm not sure that I can.


All that said, I still want to recognize my father for his warm heart, his integrity, his gentle nature. So, happy birthday, dad. I love you. I owe you my life and I thank you for it. 

Now, I've just got to figure out a way to get out of my head and live it.