The Day I Was Supposed To Die
I was supposed to die yesterday.
I've been waiting for February 15, 2017, for nearly forty years... it was the day my life was to end. Now, on February 16, I find myself grateful, thoughtful, and a bit bemused, because the clock didn't run down quite the way I was expecting.
I feel like Ed Wynn in that Twilight Zone episode, who lies down to die as the grandfather clock that tells the time of his life finally runs down, and then realizes he's not going anywhere just yet... or Chief Dan George at the end of Little Big Man, who declares it's a good day to die, lies down, gets rained on, and gets up with a shrug to get back to living his life.
So: why this particular date? Like many of the hidden gears and cogs of my inner life, it has to do with the defining moment of my youth: the death of my father.
There are a few people with whom I am friends on Facebook who would remember Papa. My siblings, of course: Leon Metlay and Beth Metlay, who were old enough to have much more firmly formed memories of Papa before he died. And there are lots of FB-connected relatives in the extended family who are of my generation (most notably David A Goodman, Ann Goodman, and Naomi Goodman Press, the children of Papa's sister Brunhilde, and Debbie Duffy, child of Papa's cousin Al).
Of my FB friends, a rare few may remember Papa: Todd Jackson, Abe Feldman, and of course Herman Soy Sos Pearl, who grew up so close to me that we were essentially siblings. Stuart Sheppard has become a friend once more in recent years after a long bout of silence; he was kind to me that horrible day that I returned to school from the funeral, having lost his own father -- Jud Sheppard, a fine human being whom I was honored to know for a brief while -- only a short time earlier.
Most of my friends and loved ones never knew Papa, but I see some of him in my daughters. Very few of them understand the long shadow he cast over me. I don't fully understand it myself, but as the day of my death has come and gone, I've been forced to think about it a lot more.
Max Metlay, Ph.D., was born and raised in New York City, a first-generation American whose father was given the name "Metlay" when he immigrated. (All the Metlays in the world are my relatives, no exceptions. Third cousins at most.) His mother spent most of her later life in a hospital bed in a razor-edged dreamworld of psychosis. His father was largely a mystery to me, as he'd been gone for many years before I came along, but his stepmother, a pinch-faced and disapproving little bundle of Russian Jewish angst who outlived him by many years, was the only grandparent I ever knew. (I took her to the Russian Tea Room in Manhattan once, in my twenties, and after managing a decent meal with conversation only in Russian, she gave me a regal sniff and said she approved of my accent... I'd obviously been taught by a Muscovite. What do you say to that? But I digress.)
Papa got his Ph.D. from Columbia University, after a marathon typing session in which he finished his entire dissertation in one draft, in one weekend. (Think on that, O Doctorate-holding friends of mine.) He was a nuclear chemist who was assigned to the Manhattan Project. I once asked him how high up he was, and he replied with an answer that seemed evasive at the time but became luminously clear when I became a nuclear physicist myself: "High enough to know what I was doing."
His experiences in the War and its aftermath shaped him, and in turn shaped me: he let me be a Boy Scout because of the skills it taught me, but he hated the organization itself, calling it a paramilitary cadre of boys marching in uniform, too much like the Hitler Youth for his tastes. It was an article of faith that our family would never own a Volkswagen, and people who drove them weren't entirely trustworthy. I still cringed a little when I bought our neighbor's old Jetta some years ago.
More to the point, he was wracked with guilt over his part in the dawn of the Atomic Age, and became a passionate antiwar advocate. He was a voracious consumer of any and all information about the state of the world as it grew its nuclear killing teeth, and was getting the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists from its earliest days as a stapled newsletter. If you've never heard of the Bulletin, you should Google it. It's most famous for its signature emblem: the Doomsday Clock, counting down the minutes until the human race commits its one last folly.
I spent my youth going through dusty stacks of magazines, watching the Clock waver back and forth on the cover of each one. I asked my brother Leon what would happen if it ever got all the way to midnight, and he said, "It'd be the end of the world." He wasn't lying, of course, but I don't think he knew what that simple statement did to me.
I sat in the storage room under the basement stairs, under a bare lightbulb, surrounded with dozens of Doomsday Clocks, watching with the rapt horror of an imaginative child as the years went by in a flash, through the back issues of the Fifties and Sixties: five minutes to midnight, then three, then two... then miraculously, with the ratification of the SALT agreements, back to twelve. Things were getting better, and I left the basement with a smile. We were going to be OK. That was in 1971 or thereabouts.
One day in 1974, a new issue of the Bulletin arrived in the mail. The cover featured a picture of a globe with dynamite strapped to it and a timer set at nine minutes to midnight. India had the bomb and the invention of MIRV warheads meant more death per missile, and the world had gotten a bit more dangerous, enough to move the hands of the Clock. A solemn decision for the Editors of the Bulletin; the stroke of Doom for a terrified preteen. I had nightmares for weeks... the Clock was ticking again, and we were all going to die.
Everyone else spoke of my Papa's influence in all kinds of ways, but to me, he was the man who taught me in vivid and undeniable terms that no matter what I did, no matter where I went, Death would always be walking right behind me and there was nothing I could do about it.
Three years after that magazine wrecked my world, Papa died. It wasn't a car accident or a suicide or a rare disease or a particularly aggressive form of cancer. It was just a heart attack. Not his first, but definitely his last. He just went to the hospital and never came home. I was about to celebrate my 15th birthday, and the party was filled with relatives from all over... because it happened while we were sitting shivah. Ever since then, my birth, and with it my life, has been tied to his death.
At age 97, my mother's memory isn't what it once was, but even at my best, I can't remember things the way she can. My memories of my father, separated from me now by so many years, have faded, and it is an unfortunate facet of my neural chemistry that the bad memories are the most vivid. Papa probably only yelled at me a dozen times in my life, and he only raised his hand to me twice, but those are the memories I retain. He was a figure of discipline, of anger. He engendered fear in me, and respect born of that fear. Entering his office at home was done on tiptoe, and I interrupted his work at my peril. He came from an era that was tough, and he was tough, and his toughness ran through him with every drop of his blood.
He was whip-smart, viciously sarcastic, emotionally intense, and had a volatile temper, but he wasn't a monster. He loved my mother with a passion that inspired my own marriage decades later and has made my family the envy of most of my children's friends, whose families are by and large characterized by divorce and strife. He loved his children equally intensely, and went to incredible lengths to assure that they all got every possible chance they could have to succeed. (Whether and how we made best use of those chances is probably a discussion for the next time I'm in the same room as my siblings, over more than a few drinks. If it has to happen at all. But I digress.)
He sang to me and cuddled me when I had nightmares. He taught me how to swim safely in the ocean, how to ski, and especially how to sail (he built our family's sailboat and my mother stitched the sails). He watched with mingled pride and terror as I whipped by him watching from the shore, running with the wind in a Sidewinder on Lake Pymatuning with the centerboard halfway out of the water and this close to heeling over completely. In late 1969, he sneaked me into his lab at Mellon Institute and let me hold a carefully-sealed plastic bag of moondust from Apollo 11, which neither felt nor looked nor moved like any earthly material and filled my mind with wonder. When I achieved something great in school, his loud and unforced "Atta BOY!" was the greatest praise I could wish for.
But I was his youngest child, and he had trouble relating to me, just because he was a talker, and a child runs out of interesting things to talk about. As I grew up I could see that he connected more and more to his children as they matured, that at some magic age and level of education, suddenly a key was turned and a door was opened and there was a whole new way to relate to him. My eldest brother was in medical school and loved talking shop with him over supper; Papa had changed fields into clinical chemistry and was a professor on the subject, and loved hearing about what Leon was learning and was excited for him to get married and get his M.D. I watched and listened with envy, eager for the day that door would open for me.
And then he died, and I realized that that door would remain closed to me forever. It was far worse for my brother Donald, who had it slammed on his foot... but I digress.
Here's the thing: from the day I was old enough to understand the concept of age, Papa was old to me. He was an old man for as long as I knew him. He had that pattern baldness that was common in our family, combined with a high forehead that made him the epitome of an egg-headed scientist. He had the Metlay eyes, with the huge sagging shadows underneath that make us look totally exhausted all the damn time. He had stopped smoking his pipe, but still had the affectations of the 1950s academic: the tweed jackets (giving way to polyester in the Seventies, God forgive him), the Ban-Rol slacks, the neatly tied leather shoes... I don't think he owned a pair of sneakers.
He read in his recliner, watched TV only occasionally (we spent weeks watching famous silent movies on PBS as a family), quite deliberately did not walk the dog (that was OUR job), rarely did anything strenuous and didn't exercise on any regular basis, loved to eat, and was overweight and very stressed out -- all the time -- by the needs of work and family and making ends meet. I think he actually had a hard time letting go and having fun on the spur of the moment... family vacations, involving as they did six people (and sometimes a dog) on a tight budget, were planned months in advance in exacting detail, and I wonder how much he was actually able to relax for any of them.
So he died, of a second heart attack, just before I turned 15. That sealed itself into my mind... he was old, and he died an old man's death -- because at his age, namely "old", an old man's death was an appropriate death. Everyone kept mouthing platitudes about how he was "carried off" (by whom?) at far too young an age, but I knew better. He was old, he worked a hard life, and his body quit on him and he died an old man's death. And given heredity, when I got old, that's when I'd die too.
So how old was "old"? Not quite 55 years. To be precise, 54 years, 11 months, and 10 days... taking into account leap years, a grand total of 20,071 days from start to finish. That was his lifespan, and that was very likely going to be mine.
Since the day he died in 1977, I have been watching my years tick away, cognizant of the fact that they would be short and over all too soon. I developed nasty acid reflux from stress when I was in grad school (the beginnings of a peptic ulcer, as it turned out, blissfully gone when I changed careers), and I was convinced that I was having heart attacks. I complained about my health and my stress level so often that my wife and daughters practically had me on death watch. Financial issues, family issues, health issues, work issues... I let them pile onto me in a growing heap, year by year, because that's what a paterfamilias DID, wasn't it? I was getting old the way my father had, so I could die the way he did, when it all got to be too much.
Except it didn't work out that way. As Chief Dan George said in Little Big Man, "Sometimes it works... sometimes it doesn't."
As it turns out, not being raised by completely dysfunctional parents like Papa was, and instead coming up in an environment where there was, to be brutally honest, lots of love to go around, and getting out into the world at a reasonably young age while retaining the best bits of my youth, it turns out that I'm a naturally cheerful fellow. I can get dark and angry at times... my Papa's temper is in inside me, waiting, and it scares people on those rare occasions when it surfaces... but by and large, I smile and laugh a lot. I have been the foil for my cousin David's jokes for years now, and I'm proud to be his straight man when the occasion arises, and if I can make my friends or family laugh, I consider it a good day.
I dream constantly; I may never actually finish the novel I've been working on since 1993, but who cares? I grew up on role-playing games and comic books (and still hang out on Second Life, sometimes in an avatar straight out of a sci-fi novel, just because I can), and share my daughters' interests to the point where they're actually nervous to have me anywhere nearby at a science fiction convention. And that's not even touching on the music I've created over the past four-ish decades.
I discovered the infinite wonders to be enjoyed in the company of girls, then women, then one particular woman, and I was smart enough to grab her and never let her go, and I fathered incredible children with her and have greatly enjoyed having her as a constant in my ever-changing world.
I changed careers when, in a momentary flash of clarity, I realized that being a scientist was frankly a really stupid damn way for a born dreamer of dreams to make a living. I had the luck and skills and perseverance to become a journalist and writer, and I've parleyed that into a way to feed my family and put clothes on their backs. (My wife, she should live to 120 in good health, allevai, pays the mortgage and insurance bills, and I'm fine with that. But I digress.)
I am surrounded by good friends that I go hang out with on a regular basis just for grins, and I have a wife who lets me go out to play, whether down to the coffee shop at Fifth and Main or halfway around the world, because she knows how vital it is to me. I talk too much at synthesizer meetups, I talk too much at music festivals, I talk too much at family get-togethers, I talk too much in online forums and blogs, I just plain talk too much, but I am always aware of my listeners and incredibly grateful for them. And as the years go by, fewer and fewer ask me to shut up and more and more ask me to share what I know. What a blessing!
I learned, only a short while ago, that I was not seeing my life as a hellish sinkhole of darkness because of any great curse upon me or my line, or because of bad life choices, or because of failing to meet expectations (my Papa's, my own, whichever)... it was because of a hereditary quirk in my neural chemistry that was easily controlled with a tiny dose of an easily available and affordable prescription drug. Soon after that, I learned that the same was true of the sleepless nights full of racing thoughts and catastrophe that have plagued me since that issue of the Bulletin arrived at my door forty-some years ago. I have gone from being happy despite my best efforts to be miserable, to being happy without wasting the effort on trying to be miserable.
Yes, I need to lose weight (a lot of it), and I now have a buzzcut because I haven't got my eldest brother's innate dignity and therefore can't combine long hair with a bald spot and get away with it. Yes, I'm mostly grey now, scalp and chin, so I look more like Peter Gabriel than Charles Manson (not a bad thing?). My back twinges when I lift things the wrong way, and I have fewer teeth than my father did when he died. But as I approach my own 55th birthday, I can throw the invitations from the AARP in the trash with a chuckle rather than a growl... because I am young. I am young.
I was young yesterday, on day 20,071 of my own existence, the day I was supposed to die because there was no way I could possibly outlive so tough a customer as my Papa, who died old on that day of his timeline... I am young today, on day 20,072... and God willing, I'll be young tomorrow, and all the tomorrows that will come after today.
There are no guarantees. My heart's in good shape, and I don't (yet) need to take anything for my arteries or my blood pressure beyond the usual vitamins. But I'm obese, I don't exercise enough, and I do eat too much of the wrong foods. Even if I turn my life around -- he says, glancing down at the fitness tracker he bought last night to commemorate the day -- someday I could get hit by a meteorite, or fall off a Big Fucking Cliff (hey, I miss Arcosanti... it could happen), or be eaten by a kaiju while I'm on top of the Eiffel Tower.. but hey, at least I'll have been to the top of the Eiffel Tower first, right?
I haven't lived my whole life not living, just waiting for Day 20,071... and that's why I'm still here on Day 20,072. As somebody wrote in my high school yearbook: "In the time of your life... LIVE." Apparently, that's what I've been doing, and I see no particular need to stop now as a matter of principle.
Here's to day 20,073, and all the days after that. I salute you all.