Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble keeps a skull on her desk, one of many sent her by her followers, and believes that the words ”You are going to die,” can give comfort. These are part of her mission to revive the practice of memento mori, Latin meaning “Remember you will die.” As a practice, a memento mori object reminds us to consider death daily and that life will end. Thus we learn to value the present as well as the future. Sister Aletheia argues that we tend to think of our lives as continuing and continuing, but confronting the inevitability of death, as opposed to pretending it doesn’t exist, leads us to a deeper understanding of our lives.
Sister Aletheia Noble is forty years old. As I think back to my forties, I don’t remember that I thought excessively about death, although the black colored themes and cards we send on 40th birthdays suggest that forty is a transitional age, when we at least acknowledge our mortality. Now, in my mid-seventies, every day brings me manifestations of aging, from the mundane wrinkles, to the chronic, aching knees and hips, slowing steps, and consciousness about falling. All of which, in their entirety, lead to diminished mobility, the inability to experience life as we once did. For me, the Tiger Tail foam roller on my desk is as good as a skull, because it reminds me of where gradual physical changes lead, that I am mortal, and that death is my ultimate destination.
Interestingly, I came across the Sister while looking for information about people who maintain exceptional physical fitness into old age. I was back from a week at a cabin on Lake Superior and had done both some easy and quite strenuous hiking, including the seemingly innocent path from the cabin down to the lake shore.
For the first time in my many visits to the cabin, I felt hesitant, even a tad scared. The path starts with a series of steps with a handrail and becomes a long needle-covered slope descending to a rocky barrier with the necessity of almost scooting, legs first, (at least for me) over the rocks to the beach itself.
To my 77-year-old judgment, the path looked doable, but deceptively so, because one wrong step, one foot mistakenly placed or unable to hold its position, would lead to a long slide ending at or on those rocks. And, at my age, that wouldn’t be a pretty ending.
With the help of a hiking stick, something I wouldn’t have used in my younger years, I made it down the path—more than once—and enjoyed the beauty of Lake Superior, the thrill of the icy water on my feet, and basking on rocks in the spring sunshine. But I didn’t attempt the path at night, as much as I wanted to gaze at the spectacular night sky. Instead, I enjoyed it from the driveway. Later, thinking about my hesitancy and realizing that the path will only get more difficult as I get older, I asked myself, how long will you be able to do this, Karen?
The internet is full of answers to this question and full of examples of elderly people running marathons, swimming the English Channel, lifting enormous weights—you name it. But impressive as these are, my sense is that such achievements require unquestioned and total commitment—24/7 if you will. Which reminded me of our old friend, “purpose.” These people clearly have a sense of purpose and it’s all about the physical challenge, making the infirmities of old age seem optional.
Which leads me to ask how facing death on a daily basis, whether it’s contrived as in the Sister’s revival of memento mori or simply the harbingers of death as we age, affect how we construct our old age. I respect that some people find a big purpose in exceptional physical fitness to which they devote their remaining time (although I sometimes wonder if this is a way of ignoring the reality of destination death), but for me, as much as I treasure all the wonderful activities the body allows us to do, as I age, I want to stay open to new callings that could potentially replace lost abilities. So what if eventually I can’t navigate a difficult trail? I can still mentor my grandchildren and the occasional student. I can learn rosemaling, tutor middle schoolers, enjoy Bridge, enjoy my friends and family, publish an occasional article and read books that make me think. My days balance small purposes, the “little p’s,” that make up a life. As May Sarton says, “I have work to do and a constant response to it that makes me feel that life has meaning.”
When my mother was nearing the end of her life, if we planned something like an all-night wedding reception or party that would keep her up late, we’d ask her if she wanted to attend because we worried she’d get too tired. She was always up for it. She’d say, “I’m going to spend a long time asleep in my grave. I want to be awake for my life.” She didn’t need a skull on her desk to be reminded of her mortality. Part of aging is facing our deaths gradually – very gradually. Aging does slow us down; it incrementally steals once taken-for-granted skills. The challenge is to stay immersed in living while knowing the inevitable ending.