“I wish I’d been born in the 19th century,” I told my father one day in my far-past adolescence. “It is my favorite time in history.” In my teenaged mind, the 19th century in the United States elicited thoughts of romance and realism, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, the end of slavery, the beginning of Women’s suffrage, Western Expansion – and did I mention Romance?
My father the pediatrician remarked with appropriate horror, “Oh, no, you would never want to live then or anytime before the discovery of antibiotics.” Thinking about the ear infections I had suffered as a child and the Civil War soldiers who died of disease and infection, I reconsidered. “Well, maybe if I could take antibiotics with me,” I said with a foolish grin.
Die Another Day, in the November 2013 issue of The Atlantic, documented U.S. Life Expectancy and health innovations from 1880 (39.4 years) to the present (78.8 years). The graphic noted the top five causes of death in increments of 20 years. Based on available data from 100 years ago, tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhoid, pneumonia/influenza and diarrhea outweighed mid-century kidney disease and diseases in infancy and today’s chronic lung disease and accidents. Heart disease appeared on every list, stroke and cancer on almost every list. Health innovations included sanitation, vaccines and antibiotics.
How far the U.S. had come from enormous mortality rates from disease. How many die due to poor life choices, bad luck and war. How short life is.
Living with the reality of death was the topic of Man vs. Corpse, Zadie Smith’s article in The New York Review of Books, December 5, 2013. We will all be corpses some day, Smith wrote, citing the memento mori in a Roman crypt: ‘What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.’ Shouldn’t we live with intention and spend more time with people, “…shouldn’t a person live – truly live, a real life – while they’re alive?”
In a letter to his wife Abigail, John Adams wrote: “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”
My father grew up on a farm in Northern Maine, served in WWII and studied engineering and medicine so that I might study history and dream of living in the 19th century. I taught high school students of history and technology so that my children might study art history, political science and law, economics, mathematics and business – and own smart phones. They will spend Thanksgiving with their father’s family in Texas, including their 92-year old grandmother. Jessica and David will call me, and Keith and I will chat with our son Alex. And I will call my 90-year old mother, but this will be the first year Keith will not talk with his Dad, for he is gone now.
Living intentionally – walking down the mountain in the icy rain this morning with the dogs and spending time with Keith preparing food and sitting in the warmth of Vanaprastha. Although the leaves are gone now and snow is in the forecast, I thank God for these blessings – romantic and real, more than I can dream.
I wish all my readers a blessed Thanksgiving.