The great sportswriter Dan Jenkins died last week, at 89. The median Facebook comment was, "Oh no!" An acquaintance died the same week. A mutual friend said, "So sad!" But the man was so old when we met him 20 years ago, he could barely see under his eyebrows.
I worry about people who react that way to the death of an elderly person. I worry that there's a pattern they are missing.
I remember when Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley's widow Sis Daley died, at 96. A public radio reporter friend rushed to the home of the Chicago writer Studs Terkel, then 91, and asked him for a quote. "What do you want me to say, kid? She died. That's what old people do!"
Studs wrote that when he was a kid, sex was a taboo subject and death was everywhere—people died all the time, at every age, and the wake usually took place in the living room of the deceased. By the time Studs was old, all anyone ever talked about was sex—but no one ever whispered a word about death. Thus, no one knew how to act at a funeral.
I was once at the home of Kit Carson, in Taos, New Mexico. The tour guide was talking about the last of Kit Carson's wives who died. "Oooooohhhhhhhh!" cried some of the senior citizens on the tour. And Carson died only a month later. "Aughghghgh!" the seniors cried.
You'd think seniors would be more realistic about mortality.
When my dad was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, he was enraged. After about three days, even in my own grief, I thought it was time for him to move to the next phase of his Kubler-Ross journey. I reminded him that he was 85 years old, after all. But he had eaten healthy all his life, he said—never drank to excess and barely smoked. "All those milkshakes I could have had!"
"And the truth is," he whispered, for the first time out loud, "I think I thought I was going to get out of this alive."
He also said, later, that it was more sad to die oneself than to have a loved-one die. "When I die, you will lose me. But when I die, I lose all of you."
Or as my two-year-old daughter said when I showed her the first dead thing she'd ever seen—a decomposing whitefish, lapping against the rocks of Green Bay, Wisconsin. "He's going to miss us."
Yes: And we should think about our mortality—and the mortality of our loved ones—every single day, instead of mindlessly pecking away at our cellular telephones and then being shocked when Facebook tell us that Betty White is dead.