XLV

Here I am on my 20th birthday, with my mother and sister.

Birthday XX

My hair was thicker then.

That was 25 years ago today.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve contemplated my mortality on an almost daily basis, yet I’ve often behaved as if I think I’m immortal. I’ve frequently envisioned myself as an old man, while clinging to an extended adolescence.

Those aren’t really the contradictions they might seem to be at first. Nor do I think of myself as particularly morbid. In fact it makes perfect sense if you look at it the right way. Youth and age are linked. Life and death are not mutually exclusive. They are necessary correlates. You can’t have one without the other.

An acute sense of my own mortality has stimulated me to live life fully. It has given me the impetus to courage when I needed it.

Yet time marches on, and I’m no longer young. I’m somewhere in the middle of life, or so I hope. I’m happy to have made it this far, and with any luck I’ll have some ways to go before my inevitable demise.

A game I play at each birthday is to double my age and see what that sounds like, to think about what it means to be halfway there. So now I am halfway to 90, and for the first time I have to admit that’s a pretty intimidating number. For the first time, I have to admit I may not make it that far. My great-grandfather Paul Hollmann did, and then some. But you don’t see a lot of 90-year-olds over six feet tall. Maybe us tall types bump our heads too often. And so for the first time (ROX #88 notwithstanding) I have to admit, I may be past the halfway point of my natural lifespan.

On each birthday I have also gotten in to the habit of taking stock of how my body seems to be holding up, and generally congratulating myself on feeling young. When I turned forty, I said to myself that I felt like I could be thirty. I could be twenty. That era has ended. I’d mark the change as beginning around my 43rd birthday but as with any long slow process, it’s hard to be exact. I’ve never been especially robust; I’ve always had my aches and pains. But they have started to accumulate. The challenges faced to my lower left extremity are a case in point.

I’m getting my first hints of what life will look like through the other end of the telescope. When I was younger, I’d suffer sudden visions of my old age, almost overwhelming in their visceral clarity. When I am truly old, if I should live that long, perhaps I will be haunted by my youth, just as in my youth I was haunted by my dotage.

Right now, though, I’m in that gray middle place. Middle aged. Middle class. A little thicker in the middle from accumulating belly fat. That’s a lot of a middle for a guy who claims to value the periphery over the center.

I still get the willies when I contemplate my mortality, but I have to admit it doesn’t thrill me like it used to. Part of that may be parenthood. There is now someone else to worry about and care for, someone for whom I’d lay down my life without hesitation. That’s represents a profound shift, and it’s dulled the edge of the old fear considerably. But I’d also like to think that I’ve grown somewhat more accepting of life’s natural cycle.

Enough of that. I’ve survived another year, and that is of course a cause to celebrate. I was in a bit of a slump for a few years there: My birthday tended to suck, and I didn’t care. But last year my birthday was a blast, and this year I’ve actually got presents. I baked myself a savory cake for dinner tonight and some clove cookies to share with my co-workers. I’ve got to work late, but it’s a meeting of the Saint Katharine Drexel Book Club, so that’s a pleasure.

A Jazz Funeral in Greenfield, Indiana

I’m still in touch with a number of friends back in Indiana. Last week I heard some sad news from one of these friends: His mother had passed away. She was advanced in years, but it was still rather sudden and unexpected. Yet what he asked the next day brought a smile to my face. He wondered what it would take, at a bare minimum, to put together a New Orleans-style jazz funeral in a small town in Indiana.

Here’s how I advised him, more or less. I said he needed a brass band. What would be the minimal instrumentation? I’m guessing a trumpet or trombone, a tuba and drum. The players should know at least one slow sad song and one fast upbeat number. You play the dirges on the way to the cemetery and the happy songs on the way back home.

A mutual friend, who is a musician, hooked him up with some players from Indianapolis who were available at a reasonable rate. Two on percussion, one banjo, tuba, trombone and trumpet. Plus a clarinet. He described them as “a smaller, if slightly less cinematic, version of what you’ve seen on Treme.”

And what do you know? It all came together very nicely, or so I gather. The musicians arrived on time, dressed in black and looking good. I don’t know the whole playlist, but the music was reverent and mournful on the way in, and joyous and celebratory on the way out.

But of all the details my friend reported, this one stands out to me as extraordinary.

The funeral director said it was like nothing he’d ever seen and he was going to let his family know that he wants this when he dies.

Says it all.

Glucksmann

I ordered a pizza for pick-up, but when I got there it wasn’t quite ready. To kill a few minutes, I walked down the street, and there on St. Anthony between Iberville and Canal I came across a cemetery I’d never seen before. The gate was ajar and I ventured inside. I’m wary of New Orleans necropolises at night, but this wasn’t the kind with above-ground tombs allow people to hide, nor was this an area frequented by tourists. I walked about halfway in. There was Hebrew script on many of the stones. I started to turn when a stone marked “Glucksmann” caught my eye. By moonlight I read:

Melanie Gorney and Infant
1876-1914

I did the math, and then I did a double-take. Apparently she died in childbirth at age 38. That’s Xy’s age. The proverbial chill ran down my spine. No, I’m not superstitious. I do not regard this as a bad omen. But I do take it as a reminder. Nothing is guaranteed.