Youth, it seems to me, is the time when a person can conceive of his eventual death and yet remain unfazed—not just untroubled, but in every way unmoved—neither stirred to live life richer, nor truer, nor better, nor deeper, nor more successfully, nor even more fearfully. Youth ends when the truth we’ve always known finally changes us.
Death, then, is the great Truth. Yes, it will kill us, but it contains a more devastating meaning. Death is the knowledge of limits, of closed doors, of firm and unrelenting ‘no’s.’. Typically, it makes itself known—not just acknowledged, but understood—through the thousand small indignities that we call growing up. My own head, for instance, is a ticking time bomb. One of these days I will wake up and there will just be less hair, and then none at all, in a stupid circle at the top of my dome. This is a true and deep knowledge of death (incidentally, there was a ticking time bomb on my love handles, too, but that one had a shorter fuse and already detonated sometime right after college). Perhaps death is not the counterpoint to life, but to youth.
By the time we first sit down to deal with death—by furtive and sporadic meetings at first, though the unlucky ones get acquainted with it through long and unexpected audiences—we discover that already we are no longer young. For it is only by the experience of true loss that we learn our limits, and seldom is anything truly lost while we remain in youth. It’s not that nothing is taken from us while we are young, but in those days we believe we’ll always have another try, and we shall yet have what we seek. Youth is to live to fight another day. Death is to live, knowing the fight is irrevocably lost. The Arcade Fire has said this simply and perhaps best: “Children, don’t grow up / our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.”
When I consider the cruelty of death’s unyielding march, I sometimes think of my own father. Estranged from me for almost a decade, when I see recent photos of him I am jarred to notice how he has aged. I remember the strong young arms that once proudly held aloft his son, or the vibrancy of this man who long ago taught me oldies songs by singing them unaccompanied over the rush of summer air through rolled down windows—poor as we were, his first brand new car was a 1990 Toyota Tercel model so stripped down it came without an AM/FM radio. Though now he is pushing sixty and slowed by the type 1 diabetes he’s had almost all his life, I still think he could beat me up (little boys measure things in such ways). I don’t understand where the years went or how radically the basic hallmarks of my life were altered. But things change; in this simple axiom, even, lays the scent of death.
What to make of this? There are those who speak fluently the eternal language flowing obscured but common through all men, who give voice to the secret utterances of the heart. We call them poets, and they have long spoken on this question. One poet, the Englishman Robert Herrick, in his poem “To the Virgins; to Make Much of Time,” counsels the following:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying :
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer ;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may go marry :
For having lost but once your prime
You may for ever tarry.
Unsatisfying words. Herrick offers no hope for us, the dying many. And should there be hope? Some talk of the benefits of age, but there is no doubt that death—that is, limits, loss, and wounds—dogs the slowing steps of those of us who have marched beyond our youth.
Still, perhaps there is hope to be found. There are other voices who speak to this. John Lennon, another English poet, though of a more modern vintage, said that happiness is a warm gun—a metaphor equal parts alluring and lascivious. If there is to be hope, then the best I can think of is that happiness is a firm foundation, one that doesn’t shift or decay along with the withering husk of my body. If there is an answer to death, it can’t be ephemeral youth. Only the unchanging, or the undying, will do.