Every morning between 6:30 and 7:00 a passel of geese squawk noisily as they fly over my bedroom, presumably commuting from their riverbank home on the Potomac to the corporate campuses and golf courses where they congregate during the workday. For twenty-one of the last twenty-three September morns their honking has signaled that it is time to begin my own trek to work. Like them, I returned to Great Falls at dusk, only to repeat the pattern at the break of the next day. We are all creatures of routine after all.
But now I have retired, and if I am not already up and out of bed their beating wings and loud exhortations to stay in formation and flap harder suggest that it is time to get some coffee and my iPad in preparation for a leisurely catch up on the world’s doings overnight. I no longer need to find and work to keep my place in the human version of the goose pecking order made visible in their aerial V. Geese can live between ten and thirty years depending upon their circumstances, so perhaps some of the same birds are flying over me as were young when I moved in. I wonder, can geese retire, and what happens to them if they do? Do they get to stay back at the water’s edge with the goose version of social security, meals on wings and senior discounts at the marsh grass feeding area? Are they left in charge of the goslings or just abandoned after they can no longer contribute to the working age flock?
Questions like these about aging, longevity and vibrancy have hung over me like a shroud these last few weeks as I inch closer to the dreaded birthday that signifies that I am officially “old.” I don’t feel old, and most people are kind enough to say that I don’t look my age. I don’t really want to be young; I’m “comfortable in my own skin,” as they say, even if it does sag. But being classified as “old” puts things in perspective and forces me to consider big, philosophical questions that are hard. How much time do I have left, and what do I want to do with it? What is the right balance between living now and providing for a possibly lengthy dotage? What is the definition of “quality of life?” How will it change as I age?
Ever since my beloved terrier Sydney passed in March and his younger, devoted (if bratty) companion Addie had her own bout with cancer in May, I have become acutely aware that time is relative. I never used to think about a day as a unit of time in a dog’s life, busy and unconsciously living, selfishly perhaps, according to my own sense of what sunrise to sunrise meant in the 80 or so years that I might be expected to inhabit this earth. I know that Addie and Sydney have been loved, cared for and treated with patience in their infirmity — even if I was not always as sensitive as I should have been to the meaning of each day of their so abbreviated lives. Now I understand that a day in a dog’s life really does equal a week in mine, and I need to make each one count. Retirement has allowed me to insure that Addie has an adventure nearly every day, that I don’t waste whatever remains of her time at my side.
I’m trying to extrapolate this epiphany to my own activities. Ezekiel Emanuel, the renowned physician and public health advocate so associated with the Affordable Care Act, has a riveting piece in the latest issue of the Atlantic explaining in detail why he wishes to die at age 75. Now 57 and in good health, he makes a compelling case for letting nature take its course after 75 rather than prolonging what is usually a debilitated and diminished endgame. He points out that while each of us think we might be one of the outliers who remains vital and productive until well into our 90s, the reality is that most of us will spend our old age in increasing physical and cognitive incapacity. Therefore, for him, setting a deadline by which he will have accomplished his life goals and will thereafter refuse all but palliative care is liberating rather than depressing. He will live as long as nature or God intends, but without benefit of modern medicine after age 75, except for the alleviation of pain.
When I think about this stance toward mortality as someone just hours from my 65th birthday, I come to the conclusion that I should live life like a dog, imagining each day as more precious than I have heretofore and assuming my lifespan to be just ten more years — Emanuel’s age 75 and the average lifespan of a canine. I am in excellent health and spirit and I love deadlines, so thinking that the next decade is all that I have focuses my mind and banishes indecision about which pleasures to partake of and which adventures to seek. Like Emanuel, I am not advocating hedonism in the meantime — that “We are all going to die anyway so why not eat that extra cupcake” mentality. I will continue to live a healthy lifestyle, not just because it gives me pleasure to be fit, but as an act of social responsibility. I won’t squander my limited but nonetheless ample resources on consumerism, but I will have the kitchen cabinets repainted because they need a refresh and because it will make me even happier to walk into my kitchen in the morning. I won’t get a facelift or a tummy tuck, but I will continue to spend a hefty sum on my hair. I’m giving my thirteen-year-old still perfectly working car to my daughter and buying a brand new one, because, well, because she needs one and I want one. I’ll spend the next ten years traveling as much as I possibly can, while I still can. I want to live to see grandchildren and to enjoy watching my daughters become mothers. I want to read, and write and cook to my heart’s content, but I am sick to death of cleaning and as soon as I can afford it I will pay someone else to do most of it for me. Money is really only useful when it buys survival, security or experiences, and while the temptation is to hoard it for the for the first two, with my ten year perspective and my newfound dog brain I want to use it for living, not staving off dying.
Geese and dogs have much to teach. Both are extremely loyal, the birds mating for life and the canines closely bonded to their pack, whether human or other. Both have strong nurturing tendencies in each gender, sharing the care of young (remember that old adage “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander”). Both like to work and love to play, being social creatures with the ability and intelligence to learn and to participate in complex interactions. As far as we know, despite their ability to feel jealousy, affection, sorrow and many other so-called “human” emotions, neither geese nor dogs have a dread of their own mortality. They can plan, but not for IRAs or 401(k)s or tax deductions. They do not live in the future. Whether my remaining lifespan matches that of a dog or a goose, I will try to be more like them, staying mindful of the now, of the ever-present “here” and enjoying the company of others. In my experience, you can teach an old dog new tricks, and I do love a wild goose chase! Wish me luck.