It is good to have an end to journey toward;
but it is the journey that matters, in the end.
-- Ursula K. Le Guin
I’ve just turned eighty-three. Of course, I’d prefer to turn back, but so far I haven’t been able to locate a reverse gear. Still, I must confess I had a good time this year. My birthday actually has become something of a national holiday over the years and goes on for well over a week during which time I enjoy receiving greetings from near and far from my misguided friends, family and a stray fan or two. And then there are various celebratory lunches with local friends and more and diverse pleasures with my girlfriend, Lauren, the nature of which my innate modesty precludes me from disclosing. Well, I could go on, but then I’m sure you would justifiably accuse me of an undue level of rodomontade.
Now if I can manage to live to be 1000 months old, I’ll be 83 and 1/3. A good time to die. And did you know that the hero of my admittedly callow youth, Sigmund Freud, also died at 83 & 1/3 – at exactly 1000 months. You could look it up. Hey, I’d be in pretty stellar company, right?
And look at some of the other famous people who died at 83:
Lord Alfred Tennyson
I sure wouldn’t mind joining that 83 club, even if I lack any celebrity credentials of my own, though I can always hope to achieve some measure of posthumous fame if ever a good biographer comes along to extol my virtues and conceal my sins.
Actually, not long ago, just as I was approaching 83, I had a near-death scare because if I believed the rumors that were circulating about me for a couple of days then, I seemed to have died already.
I had no idea about the rumors swirling about concerning my alleged death until I received a call from a longtime NDE colleague of mine who never calls me. When I heard his emotional voice on the phone, I thought he was calling me to tell me that someone in the NDE community had died. I had no clue that that someone seemed to be me!
When I picked up the phone, I heard my friend gasp and then say, “Oh, Ken, you’re alive!”
“Of course, I’m alive, you silly goose. Just because I’ve been writing all these essays about waiting to die doesn’t mean I’ve actually caught the disease.” (I am paraphrasing and exaggerating a bit here for dramatic effect. Am I having any?)
My friend said that a near-death experiencer (NDEr) of our acquaintance had been spreading the good news. It made me wonder why she didn’t call me first.
As soon as I hung up, the phone rang again. This time the incoming President of IANDS, the NDE organization I had co-founded in 1981, was on the line. Another version of the same conversion took place. Egad, what next?
Shortly afterward, I was able to piece together how this rumor got started. Do you remember in one of my earlier essays called “Cheers at the Half,” I had mentioned a letter from a longtime NDE friend and author she had entitled “Remembering Ken Ring?” At the time, I joked that it made me think I was reading my own eulogy.
Well, recently, that letter was published in Vital Signs, the quarterly newsletter of IANDS, and the NDEr I mentioned apparently read it as if it were entitled “In Remembrance of Ken Ring,” so naturally she thought I had left the building – for good (pace Frasier). At that point she got in touch with the woman who had written that article who, having no reason to doubt the NDEr, put out an announcement about my purported death of her website. Why she didn’t check in me with first, God knows?
Well, you can imagine the next two days, putting those rumors to rest that I had not been laid to rest. Apologies were extended, laughs were exchanged, and I got back to merely writing about waiting to die again and was spared from the formality of its actually occurring.
Not long after this faux near-death episode, I wondered into my local bookstore looking for a new novel. And guess what immediately caught my eye? A book by the title of The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, but it was the full title that told me this was the book I was meant to read at this time.
The Secret Diary of
83 1/4 Years Old
And this Dutchman, my exact contemporary, turned out to be an octogenarian after my own heart and, if I may say so, in my own moldy mold. (To my surprise, Hendrik turns out to be a fictional character but not to me nor, I suspect, to most people who discover him.) Like me, he has found that humor is what gets him through his day as he deals with the kind of decrepitude that I have often bemoaned in these essays. His piquant sense of humor is delightful as this passage will demonstrate. Does Hendrik remind you of anyone you know?
My “dribbling” keeps getting worse. White underpants are excellent for highlighting yellow stains. Yellow underpants would be a lot better. I’m mortified at the thought of the laundry ladies handling my soiled garments. [Hendrik lives in an assisted living home in Amsterdam.] I have therefore taken to scrubbing the worst stains by hand before sending the washing out. Call it a pre-prewash. If I didn’t send out anything to be laundered it would arouse suspicion. “You have been changing your underwear, haven’t you, Mr. Groen?” the fat lady from housekeeping would probably ask. What I’d like to reply is, “No, fat lady from housekeeping, this pair is caked so firmly onto the old buttocks that I think I’ll just keep wearing them for the rest of my days.”
It has been a trying day: the body creaks in all its joints. There’s nothing that will stop the decline. Hair is not going to grow back. (Not on the pate at least; it readily sprouts from the nose and ears…) and the leaking nether parts aren’t going to stop dripping.
I can’t seem to get away from tales of urinary distress so reminiscent of my own, especially those that I alluded to in my very first essay.
For example, during the last couple of weeks, my girlfriend Lauren and I have been watching a very popular comedy on Netflix called The Kominksy Method. It stars a 74-year-old Michael Douglas as a theater coach (since his career as a leading actor – at least in this series – is washed up) and Alan Arkin, who is ten years older and Douglas’s former agent, as well as his best friend. Arkin, whose beloved wife has just died, is the archetypal curmudgeon while Douglas, with his grizzled beard and cool leather jacket, still is trying to cozy up to women, oozing the last drop of his fading charm.
Unfortunately, that’s not all he’s oozing.
In the third episode, Douglas begins to have prostate problems and is always having to go to the bathroom, at the most embarrassing times, so that everyone becomes well aware of his urinary exigencies. One night, he is saying goodnight to his girlfriend – one of his drama students – outside her house. They kiss, and he starts leaving when he stops and says “uh-oh.” He looks around furtively, sees that no one is watching, and then pees in her bushes as a sigh of relief washes over his face.
The story of my life! I have been there, believe me, and worse! Did he have to remind me?
Eventually, Douglas has to visit a urologist who is played by the hilarious Danny DeVito Any man of a certain age, and I am of that age, will relate to the examination that DeVito then performs. I squirmed throughout that scene while my girlfriend, of course, found it uproarious.
I do recommend the show, however, particularly to men under the age of thirty.
Seriously, however, it does depict, both with humor and with a certain pathos, the trials of old men like me, especially Arkin, who is about my age, and in the series is clearly waiting to die.
Before I leave this bathroom humor behind, I have to confess that I still find that when I piss, I often continue to get a secondary stream that runs down my left leg. That really pisses me off. Sometimes it happens twice in a row. What do you think I say then?
Another double dribble.
I’m winding up talking about the same things I mentioned at the beginning of these essays. I’m not progressing toward death; I’m going in circles!
One day long ago I had a shocking realization. I received a new credit card whose expiration date was November, 2023, when I would be almost 87 years old. Surely, I thought, I would expire long before that. But, then, a horrible thought occurred to me: What if I don’t?! What if I live to 86? Honestly, before seeing that card, I had never imagined such a thing. No, no! Will I still be walking on this road toward death, still waiting to die, for years to come? What a ghastly thought.
I realized I’m not afraid to die; I’m now afraid of living too long!
Meanwhile, I seem to have reached the end of this stage of my journey toward death, if not the end of the road -- but the road stretches on. I am still shooting for 1000 months. If I get there, I may possibly shoot myself since I think it would be keen-o to go out with a bang (get it?) on such a splendid number. [Just kidding, don’t worry. Not being a rabid gun-toting member of the NRA, I have never even touched a firearm. I don’t even know anyone who has one, and I don’t think I’d like to, thank you.]
I will now take leave of you by recalling the lyrics of a song I’ve mentioned before from Carousel, the musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. In light of these essays dealing with NDEs, try reading these lyrics as a metaphor for life’s journey on the road toward death and what you will experience on the way:
When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don't be afraid of the dark
At the end of a storm
There's a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark
Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone
You'll never walk alone
On the road toward an infinite journey with Lauren by my side.
Sorry to disappoint you. I’m sure you expected a dramatic finish with me in the hospital, tethered to tubes, surrounded by my relatives some of whom surely wondering if they had been mentioned in my will, and me about to expire.
But la morte, come la donna, è mobile. Death is fickle. It comes when it pleases. It has no respect for the contrivance of literary endings. I am not in a Chekhov play after all.
If you want to find out if I made it to my 1000 month goal in four months, write my agent. If he doesn’t respond – well, draw your own conclusion. This is mine.
Dr. Ring is Professor Emeritus of psychology at the University of Connecticut where he researched near-death experiences. He designed scientifically structured studies of 102 near-death survivors that further developed Dr. Raymond Moody's early NDE findings. He is well-known for his ground-breaking research of investigating NDEs among blind persons in his book Mindsight. Ken Ring is the co-founder and past president of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) and is the founding editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies. He has published several near-death experience related books, including Life at Death (1980), Heading Toward Omega (1984), The Omega Project: Near-Death Experiences, UFO Encounters, and Mind at Large (1992), and his most well-known and celebrated NDE book, Lessons from the Light (2000).
CHECK OUT KENNETH RING'S NEW BOOK: