July 21, 2022

The Waiting Game

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Several years ago, I published a little book of mostly humorous essays that I whimsically entitled Waiting to Die. After having spent more than half a lifetime researching and writing about what it’s like to die (it’s so much better than living, according to what I’ve been told by the people I’ve interviewed), I thought I could write about what is like waiting to die, at least what it’s been like for me. When I wrote the essays for that book, I was in my early eighties, and I joked that it was then my goal to live to be a thousand – months old. That would have gotten me out of here at a little more than 83, which seemed to be a good age to die.  

I made my goal, but at the same time, I failed to achieve it. That is, I lived to reach my thousand-month marker, but the problem was, I didn’t die. Instead I was condemned to begin my second thousand-year cycle, though I still cherish every hope I will end well before it does.  

Actually, I remember the exact day when I reached my original goal. It was on April 13th, 2019, and, strangely enough, it was one of the very worst days of my life. As it happened, I was vacationing with my girlfriend Lauren in Pacific Grove – my longtime favorite town in California where I had spent many happy times in years past – at that time. There was a professional conference being held during that week – that was one reason we were there then – and I was going to be honored for my work. But when I woke up that day, I was terribly, wretchedly sick. I could scarcely get out of bed. I couldn’t go to the conference, I could only go to the bathroom (I will elide the sordid activities that brought me there). The thought even occurred to me that perhaps I really would die that day, but, obviously, no such luck. By the next day, although I still felt weak and wiped out, I was beginning to recover. But in a way, the worst was still to come. 

Pacific Grove is a hilly town and where Lauren and I were staying then was down close to the ocean. To get up to the main part of town where the restaurants and shops are, we had to climb up a little grade and then surmount a long hill. I found that I couldn’t do it. Well, I could but only with the greatest difficulty. It wasn’t just a hill any longer; it seemed to be Mt. Matterhorn. 

That’s when I realized that my spinal stenosis from which I had already been suffering for several years had now reached a point that would prevent me from traveling or doing much of anything. Lauren and I had always enjoyed eating at our favorite restaurant there, Pepper’s, which was located toward the top of that steep hill. That day was the last day we were ever able to dine there, and that trip was the last time I was able to visit Pacific Grove, or PG, as we always called it. I have never been able to get back there – of course COVID would soon prevent that, anyway – and I never will. 

So although I didn’t die that fateful, but not fatal, day, April 13th, 2019, it did seem to mark the end of my life in another way. After that day, I would become effectively housebound, which has been the case ever since. I now live essentially as something between a shut-in and a cripple. My life didn’t end that day, but in another sense, that day did indeed mark the end of my life, as I had been used to living it. In Waiting to Die, I mused that I wasn’t really afraid of death, I was afraid of living too long! Now my worst fears have been realized. I have not been able to dismount on this not-so-merry-go-round of life. 

So, here I am, drifting unsteadily on wobbly legs toward 87, wondering what to do with myself. Of course, I can still read – although I’ve recently been having trouble with my vision. But after having had some surgery recently to remove something nasty from the left side of my face, something went wrong. I now have the feeling that there is a worm crawling around inside there, and the funny thing – though it’s not funny to me – is that that feeling is intensified whenever I watch TV. It’s been over a month now and my dermatologist who performed this operation has no idea what’s going on. So even watching TV is a bit of problem now, but the worm in any case does not show any interest in taking up residence elsewhere. I have other physical problems, too, but who wants to read about the troubles of an old man? I will not bore you into soporific stupefaction by giving you the litany. You get old, your body falls apart. That’s life in the lame lane. You get used to it. There are worse things, God knows. I have been lucky – or perhaps not -- to get this far. 

But perhaps the worst thing for me – you will laugh at this – is I really don’t know what to do with myself these days. I have written many books and in the last few years I have written dozens of blogs, but for now, I know I have written my last book (it is now at my publishers and should be out later this year), and I am blogged out. I can’t think of anything worth blogging about, and in recent years, I have always lived to write. I have no hobbies, I have few friends, I don’t much feel like writing e-mail, I’m alone most of the time, although I have a wonderful caretaker, a loving girlfriend and kind neighbors. But, still, days of puttering around my house when even doing routine chores exhaust me and cause me to pant like a slobbering dog, don’t make for much of a life. If I could still write books, I might entitle my next one, Still Waiting to Die. I suppose there’s always Netflix to distract me from my troubles and get me through the night. 

The odd thing is, despite what I have written, I am not depressed, at least not most of the time, although occasionally I do sink into a state of torpor and ennui. But mostly not. Mostly I am still glad and grateful to be here. I just wish I could think of something useful to do with myself. Right now, it’s time to crumble up some walnuts for the birds outside on my patio. At least I can make the birds happy. That’s something. 

In the meantime, I’m still playing the waiting game. So far, I’m losing, but I haven’t lost hope that I will eventually figure out what to do with myself. If you have any ideas, please let me know.

3 comments:

  1. Brian Anthony KraemerJuly 21, 2022 at 8:33 AM

    Ken, you are the most delightful writer I have ever had the privilege of knowing personally. You are the man I want to be if I am ever blessed/cursed to make it to 86/87. What I love about you is your unapologetic honesty. You say it as you experience it and this is a gift you offer all of us. I cannot say how rare a bird you are to simply speak your truth and be openly yourself. I am grateful for this level of sharing of yourself and I hope you will keep sharing as much as you are able because you give me courage to face my own life existence.

    Years ago, I was visiting seniors in a convalescent home in Calabasas called Silverado. It is designed for patients with Alzheimer's. There was an elderly man who wandered the hallways all day every few seconds, muttering the words, "What to do?" (3 seconds pause) "What to do?" (3 seconds pause) "What to do?" I thought, "This man is expressing my existential angst perfectly. He might has well be channeling my life experience. What to do? Does anyone ever contemplate the burden of being an eternal being? Many times, I have considered writing a book entitled, "So now what?" The subtitle might be something like, "What to do with eternity?" Well, I don't have any answers so it would be a very short book.

    Actually, I do have a few answers, the first two being rather unacceptable to say in polite society. I would tear off these ridiculous clothes and run down the street naked. I would f*** more, lots more, with lots more people. I would eat richer food and wouldn't give a damn about whether I had a heart attack or stroke. Of course, I wouldn't want to survive either. Why survive here when one can move on to further adventures? I would run naked along the ocean shoreline and chase seagulls and cry and giggle at the same time. I would rock babies to sleep in my arms. I would find a night sky without any city lights to mar its profound beauty. I would make my own board games out of cardboard and index cards and play them with my friends. I would swim naked in my neighbor's pools. These are just the things that come to mind immediately. I'm sure there's infinitely more possibilities.

    Almost none of that can I actually do given that I live in northern California. If I lived in southern California, I could do more of that, but at the moment I am content to live next to my own aging parents. My father is 86 and soon to be 87 just like you. My mother is 80. I love them both more than anyone else on the planet and really I live for them. I have said to The Great Spirit, "Please keep me alive at least until they die, but then I'm ready to go whenever is the right time."

    I don't believe rushing it is a good idea. When I was in my twenties, I was very depressed, even suicidal, and imagined how I might end my life, but I have never been depressed like that again. In fact, I enjoy life for the most part now. Baby chicks need to peck their own way out of their shells and cannot be rushed. Butterflies to emerge from their own cocoons without assistance from little children. There are natural cycles and perhaps it is my religious upbringing, but I am committed to following the natural cycles rather than rushing things. If things get too miserable, I won't hesitate to take whatever pain medication I need at the time, but I don't plan or expect to rush it.

    Perhaps I've said too much, but this is me and like you I want to speak the truth before I die. I want to simply be real. This, to me, is the best I can be. I love you, Kenneth Ring. I'm glad to be in this miracle called life together with you and I'm confident that in the eternity of things our lives will mix and merge and mix and merge again and again. Peace. :-)

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  2. The above comment by Brian Anthony Kraemer elicited many of the same feelings I have toward you dear Ken. Thank you Brian for writing such a beautiful comment. As I read your blog Ken, I remembered what someone once said. "We all die. The goal isn't to live forever, the goal is to create something that will." Oh my goodness Ken, the amount of good you have done in the lives of others is incredible!!!

    Speaking for myself, no matter what role you had in my life, you opened your heart to me and to so many others. I can't thank you enough for that. Whether you have served as a constant guiding light or just a brief bright shooting star in my universe, you have made my life better. You let me into your world and I let you into mine.

    I don't like that we have to live out "golden years" like this, but we're going to do our best with this time we have. Thank you for being such a transparent soul whose heart has no limits.

    I don't have any suggestions you are asking for except to bask in all the memories of the past which gave you such a meaningful life. Or...maybe you can write the next opera. Love you my friend!

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  3. Ken,

    A while ago, you gifted me a copy of your book, “waiting to die.” I finished it not too long ago, and I wanted to express my deep appreciation for everything you’ve done, and all the things you’ve written over the years. I still check this blog every so often and think to myself “I wonder if Mr. Ring has gone onto the next journey yet?”. And in a morbid sense, I sometimes hope to see that you have, just because I know how much you’re excited to get there. I don’t wish for you to die, but at the same time, I kinda do! It’s a bit of morbid comedy in that way.

    My grandfather who I call Dziadzi (pronounced “Judge- ee), just turned 90. His wife is 89, and they have been married for 67 years. They were raised as strict Catholics thanks to our polish ancestors. Because of this, I sadly see the differences in how your life and how their life works. My grandmother in particular is afraid of death like no other. I know she fears her “judgment”, and I honestly wish that I could help her. But seeing as I’m only just her 24 year old granddaughter, I have no place in doing so. It’s sad, for I know that her fears are misplaced. There’s no reason for her to be so afraid but I get it- especially at 89, the act of waiting must be so frustrating. It’s something that I often think about myself. What will I think when I’m 89? What if I live to be 100? God, I hope not!

    I understand your boredom. Its something I know a lot of people struggle with as they get older. Perhaps taking up gardening can help? For me- it was a saving grace during COVID. Being able to care for something, watch it grow, and then even enjoy the fruits of my labors by admiring flowers/picking veggies, etc. pen pals also can be a big time waster too, it’s often fun just getting random letters from folks all around the country, just to see how they are doing, what they’re doing, and of course- drama. But- I know you’re limited in your movement, so I can see if that’s hard to do.

    I don’t really have much else to say- as someone so young as me I have no idea the struggles or life an older person has (yet! I’ll get there..) but just know that I’ve always Enjoyed your writing, but that I cannot wait for the day I see that you’ve moved on. When that day comes I’ll cheer and probably shed a few tears. Not for the fact that you’re gone, but that the world has lost a voice of someone so wise and intelligent. But thankfully your lessons and teachings will echo in history forever.

    As always, with love,

    Kate K

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