IONCE ASKED MY FATHER, who served on various secret missions up and down the coast of Norway during the Second World War how he had reconciled himself at the time to the fear that he might die. He was shockingly unemotional about it. “I just figured that if a bullet had my number on it, there wasn’t much I could do.” He played his odds. If he died, he died and wouldn’t know what he was missing. If he didn’t die, as he said, “it was all gravy after that.”
As he lasted into extreme old age, of course, he became less sanguine about his prospects. In his last months, terminally ill with a 98-year-old coughing heart, he cried at tables in restaurants when he needed everyone’s help to get to his seat. I thought he feared the loss of his independence, but I suspect now that his terror was deeper and more unanswerable: he suddenly saw how much people loved him and how much they would miss him, and that sweet pain made him afraid.
I never held his fear – of making others need him – against him. Fear is near the core of aging’s No. 1 lesson: that we have absolutely no control over what happens to us physically. You can pretend – you can fast on algae and give up wine and exercise until your skin and bone are one – but that’s just fear turned inside out, a tiny hedge against genetics. None of us know what is going to take us down and fail us last. But that fear is what makes us all the same and what makes us equal. It’s actually the door to liberation.