“Embrace aging,” writes Mitch Albom. These days, too many platitudes about aging are wish-fulfilling, reality-denying pablum. No, 70 is not the new 50; no, there ain’t no fountain of youth. I stand with the acerbic Martin Amis: “And meanwhile time goes about its immemorial work of making everyone look and feel like shit.”
Death began stalking me 20 years ago with heart disease. I’ve had two heart attacks and six coronary stents. In 2010, I was struck with a terminal cancer that has a median life expectancy of 14 months. Chemo saved my life but left me with congestive heart failure, crippling neuropathy, and a laundry-list of physical disabilities. Smoking two packs a day of Camel straights for 27 years finally began paying dividends a few years back — moderately severe emphysema.
The last affront came in 2018. During the first week of the semester, I collapsed with a major epileptic seizure. When my scrambled-egg of a brain began clearing, I did some research:
- The risk of stroke is three times higher in older patients who have a new-onset seizure.
- An elderly person with new-onset epilepsy has a diminished quality of life and reduced self-confidence. The tasks of daily life become more difficult. Driving restrictions reduce independence and increase isolation.
- Elderly people with epilepsy have more anxiety, depression, and diminished cognitive ability than those of a similar age without epilepsy.
My mind is still as sharp as a razor, but my body is becoming something that only a crematorium could love. Consequently, I signed up for phased retirement. As much as I’d like to deny it, at age 74 I could no longer teach full time and serve as an intellectual gadfly in numerous other venues. Teaching is my calling and the love of my life. The advantage of phased retirement is that I could continue teaching half time for a couple more years. The downside to the deal: I must retire in May of 2021 — no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
My ambivalence about the decision surfaced in a recent nightmare. In the dream, my accumulating maladies had finally become unbearable. Given the wonderful fluidity of dreams, I chose a method of suicide that was irreversible but would only occur a few weeks hence. I spent that hiatus justifying my decision to family, friends, and colleagues. Privately, I increasingly regretted my decision, but it was a fait accompli. Cursing my plight, I awaited my fate.
Throughout my hardscrabble life, I’ve become a remarkably adept shape-shifter, one who seems able to change form or identity at will. Finding a new venue, a vibrant audience, and a kick-ass message should be child’s play for a resilient 76-year-old. And I’ll still be a lifelong learner and a perennial teacher.
As a former student once put it, “Monte, you don’t have to worry about dying. God doesn’t want you and the devil doesn’t need the competition.”
As of May 8, 2021, Monte Bute will be a professor emeritus sociologist at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul.
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