According to a joke my older brother likes to tell, my very first word wasn’t even a word. It was a sentence. A complete sentence. As he tells it, one day before I was old enough to blow out the lone candle on my birthday cake, I, out of nowhere, matter-of-factly announced to those assembled, “You know, we’re all going to die.”
No other witness survives to confirm or dispute his version of this event, whose aim I believe is to demonstrate that I started out, not as a child, but as a senior citizen. Although I can’t deny the underlying premise—that even as a kid I’d already begun what would become a lifelong focus on the darker, more fatalistic side of things—I’m fairly confident he is joking about what I might have said, not only because the story makes me out to be ridiculously precocious, but because I can’t imagine anybody (outside of someone living in a horror movie) brave or stupid enough, after hearing those bone-chilling words come out of an infant’s mouth, continuing to let such a kid live under the same roof.
Now, almost seven decades later, what I perceived then as an abstract truth, some far-off eventuality, has suddenly become very real, very palpable, very right-around-the-corner. Finally—at last!—I’ve been handed the role of a lifetime, the part I’ve been rehearsing for my whole life: Old Man. Over the course of all those years leading up to this crowning achievement, however, I never remotely anticipated that once I’d actually won the part, it’d feel like I’d been cast in a science fiction movie.
Just shy of a half-century ago—33 years before the year it depicted—MGM released Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Opening in the distant past, the movie imagined that eons ago, a bizarre “black monolith” appeared on Earth to inspire a random ape to pick up the bone of a dead animal and, for the first time in ape history, use it as a weapon, thereby jumpstarting the “dawn of man.” From there, projecting into 1968’s then-not-too-distant future, the film envisioned (a bit overoptimistically, as it’s turned out) a mission to Jupiter in 2001 that would bring its skipper to encounter yet another monolith—one that would, once again, trigger mankind’s next evolutionary advance.
Heralded at the time for numerous “major motion picture” breakthroughs—unprecedented special effects that conveyed the balletic beauty of objects sailing across the ocean of outer space, a classical music soundtrack, oblique storytelling, surprising intellectual aspirations—one element of the film in particular has come to seem eerily prescient. The character of HAL 9000—the ultimately homicidal shipboard computer, whose calm and mellifluous voice conveyed more human emotion than the flat affect of the astronauts aboard—ominously foreshadowed how technology would one day—our day—creep into, and often take over, every nook and cranny of our lives.
Some naysayers back then wondered what relevance all this magnificently produced folderol could possess, given how far removed it was from a bitterly fractious year’s more immediate real-life concerns of political assassinations, riots, the Vietnam War. I was one of many who couldn’t have cared less about its “lack of relevance.” Magisterial and audacious, 2001 left me (and almost everyone I knew) awestruck, moved in a way no other movie had ever made me feel.
In its 2.5 hours, the film spanned millions of years, from before the arrival of Homo sapiens on the African savanna to the onset of the 21st century and interplanetary space travel. Proceeding at a pace at times almost glacial, and for much of its length almost dialogue-free, the movie established a mood that was, paradoxically, both calming and unsettling. The eerie disconnect between the mysteries of the monolith—its origins, its aims, its powers—and the dull ordinariness with which the men of 2001 dealt with them was disorienting. And challenging.
What the hell was going on? The movie arrived like a thunderbolt, opening doors out onto a new world, where we run-of-the-mill moviegoers were confronted with cosmic questions larger than ourselves—about life and death, our purpose on Earth, the evolution of Man—questions we may have considered, but never in a movie house and—as presented in Cinerama, Todd AO, and Super Panavision 70—never so thrillingly.
Given the general run of movies these days—their superhero brainlessness, their rapid-fire editing—it may seem absurd to believe that a movie could do all that, but it did. The movie made us work to find its meaning.
Oddly enough, though, one aspect of the film, quite silly to me back in 1968, has become, unexpectedly, the one aspect that seems most relevant to me today.
Go watch a kid.
That’s right. For a couple of minutes, go watch one. One who’s awake. And by “kid,” I mean, let’s say for starters, somebody under six.Go ahead now. Go. Observe.
I’ll wait . . .
You did? Good.
What did you see?
I’ll tell you.
Unless the kid was hypnotized by flickering images on a screen or a device directly in front of his or her face, you saw the kid . . . move.
The youngest ones are ceaselessly, pointlessly, erratically moving their arms and legs and making faces. Older kids are, for no good reason, just for the hell of it, suddenly turning a walk into a run—or a skip or a hop or a jump or a dance—a joyous bolt forward, or backward . . . or anywhere, following impulses they didn’t even know they had. Not only because they can, but because they must. They swing their arms in an exaggerated motion or make some other nonsensical movement for the same reason: no reason. No motivation, no real destination or goal—just a burst of life energy that demands to be released.
Children—neither aware of nor capable of conforming to the constraints on movement the code of social behavior imposes on adults—move. When you really watch kids and see all that movement, all that unmediated life pour forth before you, you’re not only charmed by their innocence, but exhilarated by their electric spontaneity. Well-regulated, poker-faced adult that you are, you’re struck by the contrast: how controlled and sluggish your own physical movements are in comparison.
It’s as if whatever tiny fraction you may still possess of that uninhibited vibrancy of childhood has been bottled up and shipped to that thing affixed to the top of your neck, where the energy that once upon a time used to be converted into wild and crazy physicality, now generates hour after hour of . . . thought . . . sometimes beautiful, loving, creative thought; usually, however, something less.
Often much less.
The one aspect of 2001 that seemed so silly to me back in ’68 takes place in the final few enigmatic wordless minutes of the movie. Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) is now the sole survivor of the mission to Jupiter whose goal was to discover the nature of the mysterious black monolith.
Dave has just overcome a handful of killer challenges. He’s disarmed the renegade HAL, who’s killed off the mission’s other astronauts. He’s weathered a mind-blowing trip through space, after some unknown force took control of the small pod designed for merely minor extravehicular activity. And now, with no explanation, he steps out of the pod to find himself plopped down in the middle of a brightly lit, almost antiseptic laboratory-looking room sparsely furnished with antique furniture and a painting or two.
Still in his bright-red spacesuit, bewildered by his surroundings, he gingerly walks over to a mirror and is horrified by what he sees: he’s old. We don’t know if this is all a dream, the afterlife, or what, but he’s aged dramatically. And, as the scene unfolds, he keeps aging; in fact, this final sequence is edited so that he appears to be getting a glimpse of what he’ll look like in the next subsequent stage of his aging. Is this cinematically accelerated aging process unfolding over a normal life span, or is it being speeded up by the mystical forces that have brought him to this place? Like so much of the film, nothing is spelled out.
As he ages onscreen, Dullea’s makeup is supposed to make him look older and older. But however craftsmanlike the job, and no matter how enthralled I was by the movie, I didn’t buy it. He still looked like a young man wearing makeup. Maybe I didn’t buy it because no matter how old he was made up to look, he was still lean. Trying my best to help sustain the illusion, I toyed with the notion that maybe an astronaut would stay physically fit for his entire life, but, nyah, I still didn’t buy it. My willing suspension of disbelief was itself partially suspended: it was still Keir Dullea pretending to look old.
A minute or so later in screen time, Dave is, inexplicably, even older. No longer in his spacesuit, clothed in an elaborate robe, he’s sitting at a table, slowly eating a meal. He senses something behind him. He slowly turns around to see what it is and looks toward the doorway where, only a moment ago, we’d seen the spacesuited Dave standing and looking at him. Slowly, the older Dave pushes his chair back and shambles toward the camera, but when he determines there’s nothing at the doorway, he returns to his chair—that is, he S-L-O-W-L-Y returns to his chair—to finish his meal. But he moved so slowly, so exaggeratedly slowly, all that slowness seemed as phony as his makeup. While I did partially attribute his hyper-slowness to the mysterious forces behind whatever the hell was going on in that freaky room in the middle of nowhere out in deep space, I mostly saw it as the product of Dullea’s overdone acting. The shattered illusion developed another crack or two: he continued to seem to be no more than a young man pretending to be an old one.
As the aged Dr. Bowman resumes eating, he accidentally knocks over a glass, which smashes into pieces on the floor. At that point, one last phony thing annoyed me. He stares at the shards, squinting at them, remaining motionless for an unreal amount of time. Then his attention is again drawn away, this time to a still older version of himself nearby, stretched out on an antique bed, strenuously breathing his last breaths. Soon, the supine Bowman, struggling, reaches up as if to touch something—it’s the monolith, there before him at the foot of the bed. Then, accompanied by the crashing sounds of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, a smash cut reveals a now-fetal Bowman, embodying the next evolutionary step for mankind, headed toward Earth. And with that now-legendary image, the film comes to its startling conclusion.
Today, the ending that once seemed flawed, even silly, has become stunning in its clairvoyance.
Some years ago, I make a surprise visit to the nursing home. The door to my mother’s room is open—all the way open, flush against the wall. She’s sitting in a chair, at the foot of her bed, facing the door, perfectly still. Before I make her aware that I’m there, I stand for a few moments, observing this shrunken vestige of what once upon a time was my mother. I see that she’s not merely facing the door, or looking at it, she’s watching it, with the same intense focus as if it were a TV. Nothing is playing on its blank white surface, but in her mind’s eye, she’s seeing something. And yet, whatever she’s seeing, or recalling, I can also tell by the blankness in her stare that she’s unaware of what it may be. Her brain has seized up. She’s in a kind of suspended animation. At least for the moment, her mind’s ability to retrieve or retain—her ability to think—all of that is gone.
When I cheerily announce my presence, it takes a few moments for that to register before she’s startled out of her suspended state—her hypnotic fascination with the door—and turns to look at me. Some part of her is instinctively delighted I’m there and says hello, and did I eat, and when did I get there, and did I eat? While I already know what her answer will be, I ask what she was thinking about a moment ago when I walked in. All she can muster is a confused smile and a shake of the head—nothing more. The answer I’d expected. She has no idea what she was thinking about, or, indeed, if she was thinking about anything. She’s not holding anything back. There is nothing there to hold back—no dreaming, no fantasizing, no remembering. Nothing.
One of the puzzling mysteries of 2001 when I first saw it in 1968 lay in how the alien monolith periodically appeared to fast-forward man’s destiny on Earth. The mystery of my life as I look at it in 2018 is how, almost without my being aware of it, I’ve been fast-forwarded to the brink of its conclusion. And as time seemed to leapfrog at the end of the movie, I’ve somehow gone from precocious infant to old man in the blink of an eye. No less mystified than Dr. Bowman, I wonder, “How did I wind up here? How did I get to the end so fast?” And I have yet to encounter a single monolith whose appearance might provide an explanation.
All that phony makeup that was so jarring back then? Well, it ain’t phony now. Today, 49-plus years after the star baby first made his way back to Earth, the slow-moving old man, horrified by what he sees in the mirror, shocked by how he got to be so old so suddenly, isn’t a poorly made-up Keir Dullea . . . it’s me. The 18-year-old once transfixed by 2001 now views the 68-year-old shell he currently inhabits as preposterous.
And that exaggerated slowness? Uninhibited movement may be the very sign of youth, but those days are long gone. As time has speeded up, I’ve slowed down. I really do move slowly, sometimes impossibly slowly. I’m the one who’s overdoing it now. When I drop something, there’s no automatic reflex that instantly comes into play to get me to pick it up. I am slow to turn or bend down. I do stop to look at it far longer than necessary, as if a “pause” button had been hit, freezing me in place until the following sequence plays itself out: (i) adjusting to the occurrence, (ii) absorbing it, taking it in, then, (iii) the calculation: (x) what parts of me will I have to move to deal with this? (y) how much energy will it cost me? (z) what ache or pain or frustration should I prepare myself for whenever I finally do commence to move? Only when all that reckoning is complete can “play” be hit, allowing me to pick the damn thing up. S-L-O-W-L-Y. From the top of my bald head to the bottom of my calloused feet, each and every part in between—every part—worked far better and faster than it does now.
It’s not just physical decline (which visit after visit to one type of doctor or another regularly confirms). There’s more. Inside? Below where there used to be hair? That, too, is a shadow of its former self. Simple arithmetic, names, keeping all the elements of a problem in my mind to be able to reach a solution? Nope. Nope to all of it. As if some force in there repels information, refuses to let the first three digits of a phone number adhere so that I can go on to hear and retain the next seven as well. Nothing sticks, everything bounces off. My thoughts, there only a moment ago, vanish, leaving no trace.
Thoughts. Whether they might worry me or (much less frequently) delight me, my thoughts used to occupy my consciousness. I’d be aware of them. More and more these days, however, I find that I’ve just been sitting for unacknowledged minutes at a time, staring aimlessly into space, the things I used to know as “thoughts” slipping by, nothing left behind. During these blank periods, which pop up anywhere—in the midst of a conversation, doing email, reading, looking for my keys—it’s as if my mind’s eye can no longer see. I cross the room to go fetch . . . what? A paper, a book, my keys? To write something down, make a call, send an email? What was it? By the time I’ve taken a few steps, the purpose of my mission has eluded me. There’s merely blankness, darkness, emptiness beckoning me. It’s as if I’m in solitary, behind heavy iron gates that admit no light, no distractions of any kind. At other times, I picture my brain as having been kidnapped, put in a sack, and carried off by some villain in a cartoon, leaving me befuddled, nothing in my head.
Dave, I’m afraid.
My mind is going.
Maybe it’s because it’s become all too familiar recently—how many is it? three? three funerals in the last five weeks?!—but your mind is wandering again. This time, though, you can actually remember some of it—normal stuff, the mundane. “How long did I pay for parking? Did I mail that goddamn check? Shouldn’t I get Apple Pay or something? At this rate, I’ll hit rush hour going home, but if it’s really crowded, I can get off at—” A torrent of laughter jolts you back to the woman up there who is speaking.
She’s in her late 20s. Even as you resume paying attention to her, to her words, to the meaning of her words, you can’t quite get the gist of what she’s saying. You know, of course, that it must be about the knowing love and wise parenting of her then-late-in-life, now late father, your friend—the sole inhabitant of that sturdy, well-polished box laid out up there, a few feet to her right—but how and when exactly that protective paternal love revealed itself to her, this current anecdote has yet to make clear to you. With a little effort, you shut down your meandering thoughts; you’ll figure out how to get home later.
You’re starting to catch her drift. You’re with her now, two decades ago it seems, but still only yesterday to her, as she tell us how she foolishly asserted some self-defeating independence as a young girl. She smiles and the crowd chuckles as they hear the tale—movingly punctuated by the occasional crack in her voice—of her childish rebellion. Rain is threatening to spoil their hike through some miraculous valley—are we in Europe? Colorado? the Berkshires?—yet she stubbornly refuses to pack a poncho. Instead of pulling rank and ordering her to do the unarguably correct and sensible thing—unarguable unless you’re seven or eight years old—the deceased lets her self-righteously stick to her guns. They embark.
Soon enough, as we know it must, the downpour, strangely cold, arrives. And we learn, haltingly between poignant pauses, that her father, my friend, whose remnants occupy the box beside her—smiling all the while, yet without the slightest hint of I-told-you-so—in one grand and majestic swoop of magic and love entwined—voilà!—pulls her poncho out of his backpack and drapes it over her barely wet frame. Then, a second flourish: his own poncho. Both now poncho-enshrouded, shielded from the raindrops noisily pelting down on heads encased in surprisingly warm and humid hoods, the two adventurers trudge on into their futures, one of which has just come to an end. Life functions terminated.
The day, the valley, the hike, the rain, that poncho—thoughtfully wool-lined—that theatrically loving swoop, his smile, all have conjoined years later to leave behind one very indelible mark, as the tears running down her cheeks confirm. Her own smile now a struggle, she turns her head to give Daddy a final whispered, “Thank you,” and steps down to retake her seat.
Of all the countless stories she might have chosen to recount, she’s picked this one: a long-gone hike with her father, now resting uncomfortably nearby. Whirling questions cascade in your head: “Who’ll speak at my funeral? What anecdotes will my life call to mind that might move or entertain my mourners? Is that what we end up as, a bunch of anecdotes? What will I be remembered for? What have I accomplished? What are we all doing here? To pay ‘respect’? To show our ‘respect’? What if I didn’t show up, or show off by speaking?” you ask yourself, but only fleetingly, not anxious to hear your own answers.
As she sits, you hear a hacking cough to your left and turn to scan the crowd filling the pews. You’re surrounded by a sea of gray hair, interspersed with almost as many bald heads. The people you recognize are mostly distorted facsimiles of their former selves, selves that have ballooned or shriveled in wildly unpredictable ways. Whether slumping in their seats, resting their chins on their canes, or sitting bolt upright, a sizable number in attendance, while not quite ready for the nursing home, might not be out of place in assisted living. A few walkers encumber the aisles. A baby’s brief wail—a baby at a funeral?!?!—reminds you that not all of us are close to the end.
Looking up at that—what’s it called? a bier? a catafalque? wasn’t “catafalque” the word for what they rested the Kennedys on?—looking up at that once-upon-a-time poncho-hiding, poncho-carrying, poncho-draping, now stone-cold guy you once worked with up there on the platform, you can’t escape the strained irony. You, too, are sort of in a valley, not walking in the Valley of the Poncho, but sitting, sitting in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, death as so precisely embodied a few feet away by the lifeless simulacrum of your friend of 40 years.
You, along with what appear to be a couple of hundred others like you, your fellow not-yet-dead filling the room, either staring up at their future or down at their shoes, are all in that shadow. All joined together, we’re participants in some vast cosmic joke: the long line of humanity, marching in succession, on one endless hike/relay that began God knows when, passing the baton on into eternity—all of us traveling to exactly where again?—each our own solitary universe, each unique, a seemingly irreplaceable but inevitably replaced link in the great chain of being. Or is there a point to it, all the desperately passionate striving each of us spends our lives engaged in?
Are your fellow travelers, like you, thinking, What the hell is this all about? Like you, are they obsessed with their own goodbyes: the life-sapping illnesses that will bring them down, their farewells to loved ones, their wills, their preferences (“cremation or burial?”), their healthcare proxies, their “important papers,” the whole logistical mess accompanying departure? “Didn’t James Gandolfini screw up his estate or something? And what about Prince?”
Each successive funeral shortens the distance between you and death, the distance you’ve always known you must cross, but still somehow don’t fully believe you will. You half-heartedly tell yourself that that distance will somehow, for you alone, remain untraversable, won’t it?
And then you do a complete 180. “I’m gonna be up where he is one day. One day soon? How can I keep squandering away on trivia the few years (months? days?) remaining to me? What, if anything, is there left for me to do?” You look around and realize that everyone here must, deep inside, at least be partially deluding themselves that they’re safe, exempt. But whatever they may believe, everyone, even that squirming kid in what must be his grandmother’s arms, who doesn’t even think yet, whose “whole future is ahead of him,” even he is going to die. All of us share that same future. Look at the front of the room, kid, that future is literally ahead of you.
Suddenly, your own even more immediate future intrudes. A moment of panic: “Did I leave the keys in the car?” A hurried furtive search yields a result that calms you down.
Another speaker brings you back to the present. He’s walking the crowd through a list of the deceased’s accomplishments, his greatest hits in business and friendship, a litany of success once substantial, now long forgotten, resurrected by his death for this last brief moment in the sun. Without meaning to, the eulogist sounds like he’s overexcitedly reading a decades-old press release hyping some Hollywood studio’s then-latest cinematic masterpiece. As he finishes up, you shift in your seat, a stabbing pain in your lower back. “Isn’t that a sign of prostate cancer? Didn’t I hear that once from that very rigid guy up there, ultimately one of its victims?”
Yes, all this praise feels like it’s over the top, like it’s bullshit, but you knew him, even loved him, and goddammit, he really was a kind of masterpiece . . . in talent, in compassion, in friendship. And you did have great times with him. And what about right now? Look. You’ve been laughing here. And even tearing up. What more do you want? “But you know what?” you ask yourself. “In the end . . . so what.” you answer.
The program you keep glancing at looks like there’ll be seven or eight eulogists, each recalling in his or her own way how he or she once had his or her own poncho-equivalent carried by the unmoving corpse up there. You’re getting so used to all these funerals you’re not even that nervous about delivering the remarks you’ve labored over.
Grabbing the back of the pew in front of you, gauging the distance between it and the knees to your left and those to your right and the distance to the aisle on either side, adjusting your feet to what you believe will be the most energy-conserving and propulsive positioning, you steel yourself to gain some leverage, some purchase, and heave yourself up. S-L-O-W-L-Y.
You hesitate, regain your balance. Before you move, another calculation: which foot will go first? In which direction? And then, there’s no avoiding it: it’s time.
Fred Wistow is a former contributing editor to the Psychotherapy Networker and lives in New York City.