I have now lived fourteen years longer than my father, and well past the age when his own father died. A century ago, the average male lifetime in the United States was 45 years. Today it’s in the late-70s—and rising. Never before in history have so many of us had the expectation of a ripe old age. The average lifetime won’t rise forever, of course, at least not without some genetic jiggering. There are biological clocks ticking in every cell of our bodies. Our cells are fated one-by-one to die, each at its appointed time, until finally the entire colony expires.
For multicelled creatures like ourselves, death is not the opposite of life; death is part of life. Single-celled organisms are potentially immortal. With an appropriate environment and nutrients, bacteria can live forever. Genetically-programmed, inevitable death appeared rather late in the history of life, just 600 million years ago, at about the same time as sex and multicellularity. In recent decades scientists have begun to understand that if you want to have creatures with eyes and ears, brains and backbones, gonads and gods, then you must have death, too. Death is the driving engine of evolution.
An individual cell in a multicellular organism can do one of three things—divide, specialize, or commit suicide. It has been estimated that if division and specialization occurred without cell suicide, an 80-year-old person would have two tons of bone marrow and a gut ten miles long. The whole business of building and maintaining a multicelled organism is a genetically orchestrated dance of cell division and cell death. For example, as a human embryo develops, the extremities of the limbs first look like stumpy ping-pong paddles. Then cells start to selectively die in a way that turns the paddles into hands and feet with digits. We have fingers and toes because certain cells are programmed for suicide. The Grim Reaper has an alternate role as a Michelangelo who releases the statue’s form from within the block of marble.
Sooner or later, however, in multicelled creatures such as ourselves, the reaping runs ahead of the shaping and we experience senescence, the physical decline of old age. Scientists are not sure how or why senescence evolved, but humans are the only creatures for which it makes much difference. For other animals and plants (and including humans until recently), death by accident or violence or disease was a more likely fate than doddering old age. If evolution never selected against senescence, it may be because it never had much opportunity to do so.
My father’s mind was sharp until the last few days of his life, when disease cut short his “three score years and ten,” the carefully orchestrated balance of cell division and death having gone wildly astray. His experience was typical of most humans throughout history; my two grandfathers died in their forties, one of a tragic accident, the other of pneumonia. We live today in a civilization that has invented antibiotics and childproof caps, vaccinations and seat belts, sterile parturition and the ABM Treaty. It is possible that I will collect my Social Security check for another 10 or 20 years. This is a huge new thing in the history of life: Not nature red in tooth and claw, but Centrum Silver and senior aerobics. For most of the history of our race, death came as a bolt from the blue—a snake bite, an impacted tooth, a bash on the head by the warrior next door, starvation. Now, with the benefit of medical science and the orderly assistance of civilized society, many of us live long enough to see that mortality is a necessary part of the plan, a corollary of life that is built into every cell of our bodies. Death is life’s necessary partner, the ultimate tinkerer, endlessly creative.
Of my father’s death I have five volumes of his handwritten notes. I know his every thought for ten terrible weeks, every blast of radiation, every pill. What is strangely absent is any recognition that death is inevitable. The slightest uptick from his well of pain is invariably recorded as a harbinger of recovery. Where are the Big Questions, the ones that are supposed to occupy a dying man? Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? What does it all mean? My father seems to have been more interested in the Little Questions. How many inches is my head from the top of the bed? How many minutes since the last Percodan pill? Will the next cobalt treatment correct the double vision in my right eye? These questions were not as trivial to him as they might seem to us. It was by the accumulation and analysis of apparently trivial data that engineers and scientists have answered other no-so-little Little Questions. How are atoms of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen forged in the cores of stars? How do enzymes in every cell of our bodies build proteins, carbohydrates and lipids? How does a hummingbird hover? How does one increase the average span of life from 40 years to 80 years? What my father was doing may seem trivial and fruitless in his dire circumstances, but he was celebrating at the end what he celebrated all his life—things that can be told and named. The army of rampaging cells that escaped from his prostate at age 64 and infiltrated his entire body were part of what is, just as the moving mechanical belt that grasped his father’s glove and ripped off his arm was part of what is. He fought the spreading cancerous cells in his body with the instruments of is. He was an engineer, a handyman, to the very end, but no match for the explosive power of life run sadly amok.
In the final days, his journals descend into a bit of chaos as his faculties become muddled. The doctors and priests come and go. Family and friends attend. And still the current of optimism flows through the pages, the handyman’s faith that with a little ingenuity anything can be fixed. The doses and times. The ups and downs of the energy cycle. Nausea. Morphine. Mylanta. Milk. Bleeding. Oxygen. IV. Antibiotics. A hodgepodge of hopeful notes, as if he were rooting around in the junk drawers of the big black cabinet in the basement, looking for just the right gizmo to set the mechanism aright. At last, other hands take over the journal, recording what he no longer has the strength or clarity of mind to record himself. His last words: 6:45 “Let the light come in.” 7:00 “Purple people eaters.” 7:10 “I hear a bell.” And then, a joke, as he is given an injection to control his spasms. 7:12 “Shot was hot. Hot shot!”
In the year he died, senior students at Notre Dame High School dedicated their yearbook to him. They reproduced his photograph from the yearbook of 1928, with the description that had accompanied the photo then: “The sterling qualities of honor and integrity are possessed in an unusual degree by Chester Raymo. His ability to plan and to execute has caused him to be chosen leader in almost every school activity which calls for a cool head and quick brain. Beneath his rather serious exterior there runs a thread of humor and fun which rises to the surface on frequent occasions.”