A very good friend of mine, Judge Robert Satter, recently passed away. In addition to being an author and adjudicator of considerable repute, he was, for me, the true definition of a gentleman.
A few years ago, he shared this with me:
Ninety years of age is not just old. It is ancient. The saying attributed to Satchel Paige, “Don’t look back, they may be gaining on you,” doesn’t even apply. They’ve passed me so long ago I can hardly see them ahead in the distance.
I was born when Woodrow Wilson was president. One of my earliest memories is of kids stopping our ball game to watch in wonder as an airplane flew overhead. My generation – the generation that knew the hardships of the Great Depression and fought in World War II – has mostly passed away. It is lonely to outlive one’s generation, to be unable to share remembrances of events with those who had experienced them too.
I’m the beneficiary of the miracles of modern medicine. I’ve had one disc operation on my back, two shoulder rotator cuffs repaired, two knees replaced, five heart arteries bypassed, and one pacemaker inserted. Sometimes I think old age is being punished for crimes I did not commit.
My heart surgery was an epiphany for me. The day after it I felt so badly, I thought, “This is what it must be like to die.” I had no fear, no remorse, no regrets. I had lived a long and full life, and if this was the end, I was accepting of my fate. But I did not die. Rather, I lived to say, as the soldier hero in The Red Badge of Courage said, “I’ve been to touch the Great Death and found, after all, it is only the Great Death.”
That experience left me pondering what my passing means—the passing of, in the words of Thomas Wolfe, “this wonderful and unique ‘I’ that never was before and never will be again.” Externally, I am a person with a recognizable appearance and mannerisms. I have a characteristic way of talking, walking and gesturing, a distinctive tennis stroke and golf swing. Internally, I am a bundle of memories of people I’ve known, events I’ve experienced, books I’ve read, and poems I can still recite. More and more I live in that interior space, recalling the past. When I die, that presence and circuitry will vanish. As John Updike once wrote, “And another regrettable thing about death is the ceasing of your own brand of magic, which took a whole life to develop and market -- . . . . Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;”
My life is constricting about me. Friends die and each of their deaths, as John Donne said, “diminishes me”. My inability to walk long distances has ended my travelling abroad with my wife. The softening of my voice inhibits my entering into group conversations, and my diminished hearing, when I don’t use my hearing aids, isolates me even more.
In gatherings of lawyers and even judges I am one of the oldest present, and don’t know many of them. I feel like a spectator at those events, observing from the sidelines. Even at dinner parties, sometimes I feel removed, as if watching my friends enacting their lives from afar.
Often when I do things like vacation in the Berkshires or go to Fenway Park, I have the overwhelming sense that I may be doing them for the last time. There is nostalgia in that.
The cruelest irony of old age is that now that I have finally learned to drive a golf ball down the middle of the fairway, it doesn’t go very far. On a par four hole, I can rarely reach the green in two.
After my death, I will live on in my judicial opinions quoted, my four books read, but mainly in the memory of family and friends who loved me. In the end though, like the men down at Mory’s, I “will pass and be forgotten like the rest.”
And yet despite this gloomy intimation of my mortality, I am a happy man. I cherish my wife dearly; delight in my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren; befriend my friends. I go to the courthouse each day with eager anticipation of undertaking the challenge of trying a case or writing an opinion. I read books and write essays. I see plays and go to concerts. I play tennis with old-timers, and attack the golf course with a fierce determination to shoot my age. I lose regularly in rollicking games of poker to a bunch of scoundrels. I root for the Red Sox.
In the next few years, or who knows when, in the words of Thomas Wolfe again, “Death may take my life, but I have lived it ‘ere he took it.” Really lived it.