So, Muhammad Ali died at age seventy four yesterday, after a thirty year struggle with Parkinson’s Disease.
Who can forget “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”?
Who can forget those iconic still photographs of him, poised above a fallen opponent, gloved fist locked in follow through, face set in stone, defiant, confident, supremely confident.
He follows a long list of others into death, figures who peopled my childhood and teenaged world. People I looked up to, tried to emulate, some I never understood, some I knew were crazy, some who we all knew were superstars.
Robin Williams, Glenn Frey, Prince, Ronald Reagan, David Bowie, on and on. Political figures, business men and women, pop stars, entertainers, scientists, soldiers, presidents.
Some of us are entering that age where death is the gift that keeps on giving. We are not old ourselves yet, though we are certainly squarely middle-aged no matter how you define that phase of life. We are losing people, daily it seems, though we know that is not quite true. We are losing our icons, our heroes, our role models.
I was at my allergist’s office this week for a routine follow up appointment for a mild chronic condition that I live with.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
“I’m 85-90% better,” I replied, smiling.
“I want you at 100%,” he said.
“That’s not possible and you know it. I’m happy with 90%” I said.
He sighed, recorded my responses on his record, then moved on.
“I can give you that TDAP shot today if you want,” he said.
“You don’t think I’ll have some God-awful reaction to it and die, do you?” I asked, only half kidding.
“Of course not. No worries. You can get it while you’re here. Done.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Oh, have you had the Pneumovax?” he asked.
“No, I’ve been getting the flu shot for several years now, since I’m around patients all the time, but I haven’t had the pneumonia shot yet.”
“Well, you’re going to need that by about sixty, I think. And the shingles shot, definitely that one. Maybe that one can wait until you’re sixty-five, but you’ll want that one. And by seventy, you’ll need…”
It hit me like a ton of bricks.
“I don’t want to have this conversation,” I said, smiling wryly.
He looked up.
“I don’t even feel like I’m fifty-eight almost fifty-nine, much less sixty or sixty five or seventy. I don’t want to think about that yet,” I said, knowing full well that I would have to, needed to if I was going to give myself the best shot I had to live to ninety and beyond.
“I know, I know,” he said, smiling back at me. “The brain never thinks that it’s aging, but the body feels it.”
“Okay, give me the TDAP today, and the rest we’ll think about when it’s time,” I said.
We put off this dance with age as long as we can. Like Ali, we weave and bob and float and dance, thinking that if we never stand still, that if we keep moving that aging and death will never find us. They will always be one step behind us.
Our brains, being the smartest part of us, the part that thinks and reasons and also tries to keep the worst news from us, because it loves the rest of us, of course, knows the truth. It knows that the little lapses in memory are normal but that they will get worse as we age. It knows that the aches and pains and twinges and stiffness are part of the package too, and that we cannot keep them away forever. It knows that a sixty year old only gets about 20% of the light to his retinas that a twenty year old gets. Our brain knows about cataracts and dry skin and thinning hair and loss of muscle mass and dismissed strength. It knows about loss of balance. It knows about falls. It knows.
I have been writing and thinking a lot about death lately, and I apologize for that. You, my readers, probably come here to read something funny, something enlightening, something that challenges you to think. I will write more of that, I promise. My little black Moleskine has pages of unwritten ideas yet to be tapped, so no worries there.
However, as the icons of our childhood fade and join that long line of ancestors and historical figures who lead backward into history, we know that it is our responsibility to keep living. We have children and grandchildren whose childhoods are NOW. They are living their lives NOW. We are part of that. We are building, in partnership with those we love, memories that THEY will hold onto one day, long after we are gone.
It is important for us to eat healthy, keep our weight down, keep our blood pressure under control, minimize our stress the best we can, exercise moderately, find hobbies that we really enjoy and DO them, engage in worthwhile work well done, see our doctors for regular checkups to catch treatable conditions early, and when issues or problems are found, address them head on and not be lulled into a false sense of security fueled by denial of reality.
We will all die, one day, somewhere, somehow, of something. That is inescapable.
In the meantime, we are all here to live.
The lesson that Muhammad Ali brings to us today is not that he died, but that he lived, that he stood up for his ideals and convictions, that he pursued his goals passionately, that he strived to be the best, and that even after he was stricken with a life-long, devastating disease, he kept on being himself, The Greatest.
We all have greatness in us.
How will others see the greatness in you today?