October 11, 2022

The Long Diminuendo

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Alice was a tiny woman but she loomed large in the life of her husband, the English composer, Edward Elgar, and when she died in 1920, he was undone by her death. She had been his rock, his stalwart supporter who had always championed his work and, in some ways, was responsible for his success as a composer. What was he to do without her?

Not long before her death, Elgar had written one the greatest concertos for cello in the repertoire, but after Alice died, he seemed to have lost his raison d’être for composing. Oh, he tried, but he could longer summon the energy for large-scale creative works. A third symphony had to be abandoned; an opera was left unfinished. He would rather go to the race track than to his piano. He made a fool of himself by making a pass at a then celebrated violinist with the delightful name of Jelly d’Ayani, who rejected his advances with disgust.

He outlived his wife by fourteen years, dying in 1934, but essentially his creative life ended with the death of tiny Alice. 

When I wrote about Elgar some years ago, I entitled my final chapter, “The Long Diminuendo.” Little did I know then that that phrase would presage my own life as it entered its final stages.

This of course is the fate of many persons who, like me, have outlived our expiration date, as I like to jest. We may be born with so many breaths to take, but we remain breathing even after our creative muses have taken leave of us to inspire someone else who still has something of value to give to the world.

It happened to other composers, too, such as great Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius, who had the misfortune to live until the age of ninety-one. As I recall, he ran out of gas in his mid-sixties, and didn’t do much creatively after that. His last two symphonies, numbers six and seven, were not particularly successful, but his fans kept hoping for an eighth. And for years, there were rumors that he was working on it. But it never happened. He was done. The rest of his life, apparently, was a footling enterprise. Sibelius liked to drink. So it goes until it doesn’t.

My last significant books on near-death experiences were published when I was in my mid-sixties. After that, I essentially took my leave of my professional life. I stopped speaking at conferences or giving public talks; I declined all such invitations or requests for interviews. I turned away offers to appear on television or in documentaries on near-death experiences. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life answering breathless questions from interviewers about “what it is like to die.” I remember on one television show, when I was asked this question yet again, I simply began to slide off my chair. That, at least, got a laugh.

So I did other things in my life. I explored other subjects and pursued other interests long deferred or new ones that attracted me. In my early seventies, I went for the first time to Israel and the West Bank to see for myself how Palestinians were treated. I became, for a time, involved in the cause of justice for the Palestinians and co-edited a book with a Palestinian colleague on the contemporary lives of Palestinians. 

I wrote a bunch of other books, too, mainly memoirs, including three of the most important books I would ever write. But I kept these works private, almost secret; they were far too intimate for me to consider publishing them commercially. I did share them with a few of my friends, however. The longest one, which ran 629 pages, so engrossed one of my friends that she stayed up thirty-six hours to finish it. Another woman read it twice, and it changed her life dramatically. I found it quizzical that the most important books I would ever write would be read by so few people.

I wrote my last substantial book a few years ago. It was another book about classical music. I called it When Jews Ruled the World – in Music. Few people seem to know what a pivotal and crucial role Jews played in fostering an interest in classical music in the Western world. Or care. I knew few people would be interested to read a book like this, so although I had it privately printed, I never made it commercially available. A few of my Jewish friends read it.

In recent years, as some of you know, I gave up writing books that few people would read in order to write blogs. At least that way, I could find some readers still interested in my work. That was gratifying. Then I had the idea of collecting these blogs into books. My first one, Waiting to Die, was actually quite successful and I still get some royalties from it. But my last two books of essays were duds. Books of essays are notoriously hard to market and most of the people who read my stuff had already read them as blogs, so why bother paying for a book when they could read my blogs for free, and probably already had? So, I decided it was time to stop writing books. Why bother?

Of course, there was a time when my books on NDEs were read by thousands of people and when I was in demand as a speaker. I also was a guest on most of the big TV shows of that era – the early 1980s until the early 90s – and on radio programs, too. I had my “fifteen minutes of fame” and enjoyed them while they lasted. I travelled widely, was on the international “circuit” for a long time, and met many extraordinary and accomplished people. By every measure, I had had a successful and highly rewarding career.

But that was then. What about now?

Well, as some of you know, about six years ago, I developed an insidious progressive case of spinal stenosis. It makes you weak and in my case hard to walk. I used to be tall and reasonably strong. I loved to hike and go for long walks. But now I am sort of crippled and all stooped over. I can barely walk down my street and back. I do have a loving girlfriend, a wonderful caregiver and kind neighbors for all of whom I am extremely grateful. But I live alone as a virtual shut-in now. Never having developed any hobbies, I spend my time tottering around my house. I watch sports and the occasional movie; I read; I write e-mail, but not nearly so much as I used to. I still am asked to read and endorse books by other authors. So I still have work that engages me. But perhaps what gives me the most enjoyment nowadays is simply sitting out on my patio on nice days, feeling the warmth of the sun on my face and gazing with pleasure at the nearby trees. I listen to the birds whom I feed every morning with walnut bits. I wait, just marking time until my time is up.

I remember that when Édouard Manet became housebound toward the end of life, suffering from syphilis that would soon kill him, all he did could was to paint what he could see from his living room. I’m fortunate that for the most part I do not suffer from significant pain and at least at this point – knock on silicon – I do not have any serious disease. At this stage, the only terminal disease I have to endure is aging. It’s really not so bad, at least most of the time.

And lest you get the wrong idea, I’m not depressed. Mostly, except when I can’t sleep, I am happy and still grateful to be alive. It’s just that I’ve realized for a long time this is my afterlife. My real life is over and has been for some time.

[BTW, when my girlfriend Lauren read a draft of this blog, she found it sad. But I want to assure you that I am not sad at all. Most of the time, despite everything, I am cheerful. For example, this afternoon, after basking in the sun on my patio for a while, I went for my workout and it was excellent. Afterward, I ran into a very attractive neighbor and had a very upbeat conversation with her, with lots of laughter. And when I came home, I discovered that Aaron Judge had finally smashed his record-breaking 62nd home run. Well, he had a great day, and I wound up having a very good one. 

So maybe my blog was a little wistful as I reflected on my current life as a has-been, but, if so, I want to you to be aware that I am a happy has-been all the same!]

But in a way, my real life now is my dream world. There, I often dream that I can walk again. I am astonished to be able to walk. I can hardly believe it. Of course, I eventually discover that “it was just a dream.” I am disappointed – shit! But I also have erotic dreams and adventures in my oneiric life, a real compensation for the lack of any such activities during my waking hours. At least that’s something to look forward to. As the old song goes, “I can dream, can’t I?” Sometimes I think that’s about all I can do these days – or nights.

So that’s where I find myself now – in what the Tibetans call a “bardo,” a gap between what my life was and what my life may be when I am finally dispatched from this world. I’m playing “the waiting game,” and, as I’ve indicated, although it’s not always exactly fun and certainly not exciting, life is still worthwhile. It’s just that I never thought I’d find myself here. No old person ever does.

Since very few people will read my last book – and I do mean my final book – which I called Blogging Toward Infinity, I will end this finite blog by quoting the valedictory with which I closed that book:

At the end of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Otello, the doomed Moor kills his wife Desdemona, having been duped by the perfidious Iago, and realizes too late to his horror that his wife had been innocent. Before stabbing himself, he cries out, “Ecco la fine del mio camin,” meaning, for those of you whose Italian is a bit rusty, “this is the end of the line for me.”

And so it is for me, at least in the sense that this is the end of my life writing books. I actually was a late bloomer as an author. My first NDE book wasn’t published until I was in my mid-40s. I wrote several more books (five in all) on NDEs over the next two decades, but after that, continued to write on various subjects – classical music, Palestine, a bunch of memoirs, and, most recently, a trio of books of my essays. I have had a good run, but now that I am running out of both time and ideas, it’s time for me to lay down my figurative pen, and find something else to do with my hands, such as keeping my fingernails in trim for a change.

Oh, maybe I will continue to bat out a few more blogs in due course, if I can find something worth writing about, but this will be my last book. For those of you who have read some of my blogs in recent years, thanks for your interest in my work and your occasional appreciative comments. Feel free to stay in touch, if you like. If you don’t have my e-mail address, you can always reach me by writing to my webmaster, Kevin Williams, at webmaster@near-death.com

A famous general of my time, Douglas MacArthur, in announcing his retirement from the military wistfully remarked, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” As I’ve said many times, I don’t think I actually have what it takes to die, but, like the general, I do plan to fade away. That’s me you see exiting stage left, after hearing a smattering of tepid applause from my remaining fans.