The Wind in My Face

By Rob Shaul

As a high school junior, I had to read Albert Camus’, The Stranger, in an advanced literature class.

The book is generally about existentialism and follows the tragic story of a guy who is not concerned much about the impacts of his actions. 

Eventually he murders another, and is sentenced to death for the crime. All along he’s been strangely impassive about the impacts of his crime and fate as a result. When asked why, he responds that all his life he’s felt the “wind in his face” of his impending death. This caused him to see life as somewhat meaningless, and applying importance to it, absurd.

While I’m not an existentialist, I turn 53 tomorrow, and acutely feel the “wind in my face” of my coming death. This sense has built steadily after I turned 50 a few short years ago.

I’m certainly two-thirds through my life by now. I’ll be lucky to live another 25 years. I have a young daughter, who will turn two later this summer … and I know there’s a good chance I won’t be around for her 30th birthday and will never meet her children. This breaks my heart.

Mentally, I still feel “young.” If anything I’m a little less intense, and a little less serious than I was just 10 years ago. Work and relationships are strong and enriching. Life is definitely a little “lighter” for me now than in my “youth.” Most of this is perspective – and I’m now a little wiser, and able to appreciate the good in my life. 

Physically is where I feel my age. Joint pain is constant – knees, ankles, hips, low back. Recovery from hard physical activity is slower.

I used to be able to wake up in the morning and be up and going in 10 minutes. Now I make “old man sounds” for 30 minutes at least, and require 2 cups of coffee, minimum, to knock the sleep out. 

Men and women my age die all the time – stress, heart attacks, cancer, etc. I read about them in the newspaper obits, or hear about them through friends. 

As you should expect, I’m much more fit than the average 53-year old man. However, “fit” and “healthy” are two different things. This morning I visited an orthopedic surgeon for lubricating knee injections, followed by a blood draw for a routine PSA (prostate cancer) test. 

In truth, many “fit” people succumb to cancer or other pathologies every day. Staying fit, eating a good healthy diet, and remaining lean can put the odds in your favor, but ultimately cancer kills indiscriminately. 

In my 20s, 30s and 40s I often set aside bucket-list trips, vacations, time with people important to me, or simple weekend activities, because of work. I was poor into my mid-30s and this experience scarred me to be super conservative and frugal with finances – with the future expectation that in my 50s and 60s I’d have the time and money to do many of these activities I sacrificed for work in my younger life. 

And it’s true – now I finally have the financial stability to take some of these trips and do these activities. However, what I didn’t consider was the physical decline. My lungs, heart and muscles can go all day, for days in a row. What fails me are my joints – especially ankle/foot arthritis – for which there is no cure. I’ve had a full hip replacement and foot fusion surgery in the last two years and will likely require more similar work in the years ahead.

So though I finally have the time and money to do some of the activities I put off in my youth, my physical decline makes many difficult at best and impossible at worst. I missed the physical window.

The Wind in My Face has one huge benefit – it forces appreciation and gratitude, and adds urgency to how I spend my time. I read recently that one component of Buddism is to thoughtfully consider your death daily – as a mental exercise to sharpen the way you spend time and treat others. It works. 

Every moment with my kids is cherished. Every day in the high alpine richly enjoyed. I fully understand how lucky I am and have more gratitude now than at any time before. Gratitude enriches my life. I work hard to never waste time – seeing the end coming helps with all of this.

My situation is hardly unique. I’m sure many of those reading this in their late 40s or older can identify. 

For those under 40, what I’d change at your age would be more gratitude, cherishing my time and not wasting it on people or activities not important to me, and sacrificing work to do many of those physically strenuous trips/activities when my knees were still young. 

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