Feeling the Genes of His Longevity

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – The last time I saw my father, on his 100th birthday, we communicated with difficulty. Deaf since puberty, and by then almost blind with macular degeneration, he received little information; so I played instead on the emotional strings that had always strongly bound us. He seemed happy, if frustrated. Both of us knew, when it was time for us to go and we shared a long, long hug, that it was our last, ever. I drove my wife and daughter to our hotel in the winter dark, feeling the genes of his longevity churning inside me and regretting the wreck he’d become in his last few years.

The last time I saw Robert Frost, in May 1962, he looked very old and tired. He was 88, and had been sick (he died of complications from prostate surgery only seven months later), but had rallied for a library dedication at my college in Ohio. At the end of his readings of his poetry, there was a brief question-and-answer period. Someone in the audience asked him how it felt to be “the last surviving poet of your generation.”

“Terrible,” he answered. All his friends were dead, and his only conversations now were with would-be biographers and much younger people. The audience, no doubt thinking he’d been basking happily in his eminence, thrilled by reciting a poem at the 1960 Presidential inauguration, and gratified by the receipt of a Congressional Gold Medal, seemed a bit taken aback. How could there be anything but happiness and satisfaction at the pinnacle of a long career?

Clearly, there could. Fifty years earlier he’d written,

                            It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

                            And life is too much like a pathless wood…

Today, sixty years after – while leaning against a post in the college chapel – I heard Frost’s answer, which surprised me then, I begin to appreciate it. I’m only a handful of months away from reaching his last year (though my father still challenges and beckons a bit farther off), and begin to feel weary sometimes of considerations. And life, though I can see a very clear track leading backward, seems in prospect much like a pathless wood. All my buddies, those vigorous, athletic, cheerful characters who enliven the transparencies of hundreds of old color slides, are gone: dead, drifting out of reach into dementia, or enjoying retirement somewhere, almost equally out of reach.

Yet it’s impossible not to feel fortunate. Like most other old folks, I read the obituaries daily, remarking on this one’s longevity and that one’s early demise. And daily on the Internet I read the sad or angry posts of those struggling with disease, poverty, or feelings of helplessness. But all is calm here for the moment. I feel like the believer comforted by the Psalm: “A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.” I’ve got enough income dribbling in (who knew I’d still be working at 86?) to live comfortably and pay my bills. Blessed with my father’s robust “Gesundheit” (though cursed with my mother’s skeletal and neurological “Schwachheit”), I’m grateful and, like most of my aged ilk, wary at the same time. From which direction will trouble come, when it comes? And what’ll be the form and substance of it?

Life at the moment feels rather like a glade, a clearing, in Frost’s pathless wood: sort of a whew! between plowing through brush and brambles with a certain, but inscrutable end. The temptation stirs within me to sit tight, make the most of it, and hope it lasts a long time. But what an awful way to go! As I often say to my little pal, Kiki, as we head out the door to the barn, “Places to go, people to see, things to do!”

My trip to Elephant Island has been canceled for the second straight year – COVID; so I’ve got to stay mobile for at least another year. There’s a schooner on the coast of Maine with my name on a berth aft for a week in June; there’s a Mustang convertible waiting for me in Charlotte for a run into the Smokies to a memorial for an old friend, who was once my best man and drove me and my bride from our wedding in his rattling Opel Rekord. And the sun returns daily. Sean O’Casey says it best: “…to life, to all it had been, to what it was, to what it would be. Hurrah!”