Having reached a certain age I have had what I call The Conversation on more than a few occasions. This is the discussion in which aging Boomers contemplate how we will handle the end of our own lives. Some of my friends have displayed a bit of bravado on the topic; drifting away on an ice flow is a popular image.
But this particular afternoon the conversation was not hypothetical. We sat across from my father and asked this difficult and awkward question: did he want to keep on living?
We assume we know what it's like to be young because we were young once. But old age is a place we have never been. We may see it up close as our parents age, but we will never know what it's like until we're there. From day to day we may comfort ourselves with the adage that we don't know what tomorrow will bring, but we certainly dread where we will find ourselves after thousands of tomorrows have come and gone.
One of the lessons we learn as we get older is that the little things are what matter and I suspect these are precisely what make us hold on to even a seriously diminished life; the face of a grandchild or the taste of ice cream. We may never discover the meaning of life, but our sense of what life means to us can dwindle down to a short but precious list. When it comes our turn, the ice flow that carries us away into the darkness may not seem preferable to a small pleasure this day and the next.
And so our Dad answered in the affirmative. We were prepared to respect his decision either way. The important thing was that it was his answer to give. As he ages his life has gone from a condensed version of his earlier existence to a very small world defined by subtraction: one by one things are being taken away from him. I don't know if he ever gets to the point where he feels that he has so little that he can give it all up. But for now he will see what tomorrow brings.