A Good Life is Long Enough for Us All
“How long do you want to live?” a woman asked me out of the blue one morning last week.
“I’m sorry?” I asked, looking over at her from my laptop, where I was editing a story for PineStraw magazine.
She had graying hair and was probably about my age, a thick volume of Yeats in her lap and a newspaper in hand, a complete stranger to me save for the fact we shared opposite ends of a cracked leather couch at my favorite coffee shop in the coastal Maine town where I lived for decades. I’d come up to see my son on his 22nd birthday and to give a book talk at a golf club in Kennebunkport.
“I was just reading an article in The Times by a longevity expert who says it may soon be possible to live for 150 years — maybe forever. Here, check it out.”
She handed me the section.
Since 1900, life expectancy for Americans has leapt from 47 to 80 years, according to author David Ewing Duncan in his latest book, “When I’m 164 — the New Science of Radical Life Extension and What Happens if it Succeeds.” He attributes this impressive surge to improved hygiene and nutrition but also significant medical breakthroughs, antibiotics and interventions ranging from heart bypass surgery to new cancer treatments.
“Now scientists studying the intricacies of DNA and other molecular bio-dynamics may be poised to offer even more dramatic boost to longevity,” Duncan writes. “This comes not from setting out explicitly to conquer aging, which remains controversial in mainstream science, but from researchers developing new drugs and therapies for such maladies of growing old as heart disease and diabetes.
“How many years might be added to a life?” he finally posed the 164-year question, noting that some longevity experts believe the increase to human life expectancy might easily stretch for decades beyond today’s average 80 years in the West. Among other things, the author cites a couple of major drug companies about to begin trials of an “aging pill” meant to stem inflammation, conceivably extending life to 120 (the current top recorded age) or upward of 150 years. Moreover, with the advance of bionics — machines that can replace worn-out body parts — some enthusiasts envision life without end, medical immortality.
How Long Is Enough?
As one approaching the end of his 50s and who holds firm views on this subject, I was encouraged and not a little surprised to learn that over the years the author has asked more than 30,000 people in his lectures and talks on advances in biomedical science how many years they would choose to live, given the option — the 80 years that’s now standard in the West, the 120 that some say is feasible, or the 150 years that would require future biotech breakthroughs.
The responses were a telling surprise.
Sixty percent opted for a life span of just 80 years. Another 30 percent chose 120. About 10 percent elected 150, and less than 1 percent “embraced the idea they might avoid death altogether.”
In effect, of those he asked, nobody wanted to live forever.
“Isn’t that fascinating?” my couch companion asked with a funny smile. “By the way,” she said, “I’m Maureen Martin. I used to substitute teach at your children’s elementary school. I knew your wife Wendy from school. How are Maggie and Jack?”
I suddenly recognized her, though it had been close to 15 years — peanuts, I guess, if you plan to live indefinitely.
I explained they were fine, all grown up and flown the coop, one in Manhattan working for a big PR firm and missing her boyfriend back in Vermont, the other just home to Maine from graduation in North Carolina and a frustrating summer job hunt.
“Wow,” she said, “time passes in a flash.”
“I was thinking just that,” I admitted, marveling how the six years since I’d left Maine had flown by in the blink of an eye. For that matter, so had the 20 years I lived in Maine, fathered children, built a house and fashioned a comfortable life I never imagined leaving until the South beckoned me home.
One reason I’d avoided even visiting my former town was that Maine — and the life and friends I’d found there — held such a special place in my heart, I feared I might wish to up and move back, though I’m fairly sure my Yankee wife would only wish me well and invite me to write from time to time. She’s no fan of snow and adores her Dixiefied life.
Still, crazy as it sounds, I’d had genuine misgivings about “going home again” to my adopted Northern home, especially on the eve of Labor Day, when the tourist occupation is at its peak — though it turns out I shouldn’t have.
Lives of Old Friends
The first evening at the home of my pals Susan and Roland Tufts, dear old friends and the parents of my son’s best friend since kindergarten, we sat up late looking at photographs of our much-younger selves and our sprouts, telling tales and reliving seasons of friendship. Their son, Andy, is finishing an advanced degree in architectural horticulture at Syracuse University and was off to Holland for several months to work on a class project.
The next morning at breakfast I was admiring the spectacular bed of black-eyed Susans and garden phlox blooming gloriously out back when Susan handed me my coffee and remarked, “Andy did that. But do you recognize the flowers?”
I shook my head. She smiled. “They came from your garden. One of the last things you did before you left was dig them up and bring them over here. You said you wanted friends to have them.”
Silly, I know, but this almost brought tears to my eyes. It seemed so long ago. But also just yesterday. Maybe that’s what living well will do for you.
Later that day, a spectacular cool afternoon with clear golden light, I met my old friend Terry Meagher, the Bowdoin hockey coach, for nine holes of golf at my former club, the Brunswick Golf Club. For 15 years, we played every Wednesday afternoon with a couple of lovely older gents named Sid Watson (a hall-of-fame hockey coach and Terry’s predecessor) and Tom Dugan (who played on the first U.S. Hockey Team), both of whom passed on about the time I moved home to North Carolina.
Those matches were treasures, with constant barbs and needles flying, always including a small side match between Terry and me for a cool million dollars. Amazingly, after 15 years, Terry was up only half a million on me. Since I was back in town briefly, I’d demanded a chance to even the score, borrowing my friend Roland’s clubs, no less.
The unexpected glory of the day was confirmed when my son Jack showed up at the last minute to join us over the club’s original back nine, a beautiful old nine framed by waving fescues and huge hemlock that resembles an English links course and is — let me answer a question I’m routinely asked on book tours — my favorite nine holes on the planet.
Terry won the first hole and started in with the needles. Jack grinned and walked along hearing his old man give it back. Probably because of the setting, and perfect companions, my game found a little magic and I played well enough to hold Terry off until the final hole, a sweet little par-3 of 170 yards. By then I was two-down, or about 2 million in the hole, when I brazenly proposed double or nothing.
“Sure,” he grinned. “Just don’t make your first ace.”
This is an old joke between us. I’ve come close a hundred times or more but never had a hole-in-one. I am the official founder and chief custodian of something I call the “Hole-in-None Society” and fully expect to be so until the day I die. And that’s no joke.
Terry hit a beautiful shot that landed near the flag and ran off the back of the green into the thick collar. Jack put his shot on the front portion of the putting surface. I teed up my ball, took a little longer than usual over it — wishing I could freeze-frame this perfect moment — then swung easily. The ball flew straight at the flag, bounced a few yards in front of the cup and just grazed the hole.
“You dog,” Terry grinned. “I thought you were going to make it.”
Instead, I tapped in and drew the match officially even.
That evening we had a beautiful birthday dinner at Jack’s mom’s house, and the next evening I gave a good talk at George Bush’s golf club down in Kennebunkport, signing more than 200 books.
Embracing the End
That Friday morning, before I headed to the Portland airport, I’d ventured into my favorite coffee shop and bumped into perhaps half a dozen old friends, impromptu reunions that concluded with Maureen Martin's intriguing question about how long I wished to live.
As I headed for the Portland airport and home, thinking about my own parents, who passed from this realm exactly at age 80, I realized something in me was passing away too, or maybe simply finally being put to rest, a small but potent yearning to be where I’d once enjoyed such a bountiful younger life.
That is, after all, the central message of living. Life goes on, and we move on to new places, people and experiences. And if we’re smart, we find “home” wherever we are. The passage is brief and that, in the end, makes the journey so spectacular — no doubt the reason 60 percent chose a modest allotment of just 80 years of life. We humans are eternal, headed for realms even nicer than Brunswick’s back nine. But speaking for myself, even if I were immortal, I’d no doubt still be custodian of the Hole-in-None Society.
In more than a metaphorical sense, September marks the start of a quiet dying time, nature’s most perfect symbol of life and death and glorious rebirth. I saw it in the sweet aging faces of my friends and felt it in the cooler air of Maine last week, and I see it in the fading leaves of the Sandhills dogwoods this week. Every moment is sacred. The imperfect is evidence of a perfect design.
“A long life may not be good enough,” wrote Benjamin Franklin as the autumn of his days approached. “But a good life is long enough.”
Who needs an ace anyway.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
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