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Further Reading

DEPARTMENT: Parting Shot

Prime Timing

Why You Shouldn't Hope to Die at 75

by Laurie Higgins

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 31

Ezekiel Emanuel, bioethicist and brother to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, wrote an article for The Atlantic Monthly titled "Why I Hope to Die at 75," in which he claimed that the debilities of old age will corrode the memories of our loved ones that remain etched in our minds, and he cited this as one of the reasons for desiring death before cognitive and physical impairments become pronounced:

We wish our children to remember us in our prime. Active, vigorous, engaged, animated, astute, enthusiastic, funny, warm, loving. Not stooped and sluggish, forgetful and repetitive . . . not experienced as burdens.

At age 75 . . . we have hopefully imparted the right memories to our children. Living the American immortal's dream dramatically increases the chances . . . that memories of vitality will be crowded out by the agonies of decline. Yes, with effort our children will be able to recall that great family vacation, that funny scene at Thanksgiving, that embarrassing faux pas at a wedding. But the most-recent years—the years with progressing disabilities and the need to make caregiving arrangements—will inevitably become the predominant and salient memories.

When reading the parade of horribles in Emanuel's article, it's easy to forget what our elderly parents do even when they lack the vitality they once had. Elderly parents laugh and tell jokes. They cuddle and read stories. They hug and they heal. They watch and they listen. And no one will see grandchildren through glasses as fogged by love as grandparents.

Emanuel is wrong on memory. My "predominant and salient memories" of my grandpa who lived to 89 and of my grandma who lived to 96 are not of "progressing disabilities" and "caregiving arrangements." Yes, I have those memories, but they are neither predominant nor salient.

My cherished memories of my Swedish immigrant grandpa include his ceaseless tinkering with legs bowed by rickets, his selfless sacrifice of his cake frosting to me on every family birthday, and his awkward gift to my mother of a back issue of Popular Mechanics for her to read on the occasion of her hospitalization.

My cherished memories of my grandma are of gnarled, arthritic hands kneading Swedish cardamom bread, and planting snapdragons—those most delightfully aggressive summer flowers—and picking weeds by hand, all stooped over.

What are the implications of Emanuel's view of "right memories"? Should we desire that memory be solely a repository of the vigor and astuteness of our loved ones or ourselves? Is this not merely another manifestation of pride and vanity? Are not memories of decline and of tending to the decline of loved ones valuable?

Rather than seeing in our decline the blessing of the stripping away of pride, vanity, and self-sufficiency, Emanuel seeks to forge these flaws into immutable idols through memory. Rather than working to welcome humility, he seeks to shut the door before he meets her.

Perhaps when we finally toss out our golf clubs and stiletto heels, we should also toss out our vanity and pride. We can then enter the foyer of heaven—our last years on earth—like children: humble and utterly dependent.

We must strive to see caring for the least of these—including our own family members—as a way to bring glory to God. We must strive to see value in suffering. If we have eyes to see, we'll find even in our own aging blessings for ourselves and for the larger community. We will see that aging serves to efface the vanity that corrodes our temporal lives.

We should rage not against the dimming of bodies and minds but against the values of the world and against our own pride and selfishness, which blind us to the strange beauty that inheres in suffering and sacrifice. If we manifest this beauty, then the memories our children and grandchildren hold will better illuminate the path they, too, will one day walk, stooped and slowly, yet toward the Light. 

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