Column: Wondering What If — and When — in the Game Called Life

For the Valley News
Tuesday, November 06, 2018

There’s nothing new about November. The hoorah surrounding the current midterm elections will go on for a bit, no matter how they turn out. But the rest is the same: the cloudiest month of the year, “before the coming of the snow,” as Frost so memorably says.

The leaves are pretty much down, and the peepers at leaves pretty much gone. Smugglers Notch is open to traffic again, at least until the next storm shuts it again, this time until spring.

The ski areas are making snow. Very few folks are braving the cold anymore to drink their coffee and chat at the sidewalk tables downtown. The smart guys on our road have their firewood stacked conspicuously and covered over. Everybody smart — pity the folks who can’t afford to — has his or her snow tires on and windshield washer reservoir filled.

We’re ready, in varying degrees, for what we know is coming next. In spite of the Old Farmer’s Almanac and the sage predictions of experts, we don’t know exactly what the next few months hold in store for us. We just know that most of us will make it through.

In that spirit of getting things under cover and lined up for the winter, I’ve begun — but in a much longer-range way — to do what I suspect a lot of old folks do. Now that I’m plowing through my 80s, I’m pulling together my relatively modest resources into a plan for whatever the next few years may hold.

I’ve decided that old age is a lot like a spelling bee or a cavalry charge. Every time you look around, there are fewer people beside you — I lost another dear old friend this week — and the odds have just increased that the next lethal projectile, be it a hard word or a bullet, will have your name on it.

That’s not a very merry reflection. Yet what else are you going to do? Retreat is out of the question; you can’t go back. So it makes sense, at least to me, to play a game that’s long been a favorite of mine.

It’s called “What If?” I always played it on Arctic canoe trips, for example, which took place far from any outside help, before we carried (as later we did) a satellite phone. What if Rick breaks a leg on the next portage? What if we lose all the pots and pans and stoves in a rapid? (which we once managed to do) What if Larry doesn’t meet us at the mouth of the river with his schooner?

Nowadays the questions revolve more around the possibilities of loss of income or development of disease. Having freelanced most of my life, I don’t have a pension. So I light a candle now and then to Franklin Roosevelt, one of whose programs forced me to contribute a portion of my income, for almost 70 years now, to a government-mandated and -run program that’s been paying me back for almost 20. It’s made it much easier to vector my probable course for the rest of my life.

In addition, Medicare, another program that, like Social Security, kicked in when I reached 65, ensures that I won’t face bankruptcy in the event of a debilitating illness. A third program, Medicaid, saved my wife and me from severe financial distress during her long terminal illness, a fact for which she was very grateful and for which I remain so. As far as I’m concerned, Franklin Roosevelt and Bernie Sanders walk on water. The load that these three programs take off my elderly mind is incalculable.

None of this should be taken as complaining or carping. I’m in pretty good shape. The roof doesn’t leak, the well pump is working, I can cook (and digest what I cook), exercise, and pay my taxes on time; and thanks to my little fur-faced buddy, I’m almost never alone. But to wander blindly and hopefully into whatever the ever-shrinking future may hold doesn’t seem like the wisest course of action.

It has made sense to get rid of needless expenses. For example, I don’t need life insurance anymore — the kids are all doing fine — but the cash value isn’t all that large. So I asked if the kids wanted to take over the payments. One of them said sure, so it’s hers now, and I’m stoutly resisting the gothic plots that suggests. I’ve pulled together my wife’s IRA and mine and negotiated a 10-year payout. My son has told me not to worry if I live long enough to get to the end of it. That was a very pleasant assurance.

Still, like Andrew Marvell, “... at my back I always hear Time’s wingéd chariot drawing near,” and the game of “What If” goes on. One former care provider compared me to a ’55 Chevy: “It may be in great shape — it may even look pretty good — but it’s wearing out. Stuff needs fixing and parts need replacing.”

There’s no way for most of us to know or predict what’ll go first (or next); so the best we can do is soldier on toward a denouement we can’t see yet and, along the way, try to protect ourselves from calamity. And remind ourselves that, like the Odyssey, it’s the journey that’s so wonderful, not its end.

Willem Lange can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.