I take pills—six daily, seven on Fridays—that keep me alive. They constitute the gentlest and least intrusive of medical regimens, for they have no obvious side effects, and I can skip them for days at a time without immediately dire consequences. It’s absurd of me to resent them. Yet I do, on occasion intensely so, and I know why: as King Lear said, they smell of mortality.
To be sure, I also know that I’m fifty-eight years old, and I don’t have a problem with that undeniable fact. (Well, not much of one.) But I do have a great big problem with the fact that I’m going to die sooner or later, and having to take pills three times a day is like driving down a highway of indeterminate length along which billboards reading MEMENTO MORI are posted at hundred-mile intervals. No matter how pretty the scenery is, you’re bound to wonder how much gas is left in the tank, or whether you’ll be driving off an unmarked cliff up around the next bend.
All that said, it’s childish of me to object to my thrice-daily reminder of the Dark Encounter, just as it was childish for me to be irked when, a number of years ago, my dentist had to pull one of my back molars. It was a relatively painless ordeal of blessedly brief duration, but when it was over, there was a hole in my head where none had been before. An invisible hole, mind you, and nobody needs to tell me that I’m the furthest thing from beautiful, much less perfect. Still, it was there, and I hated it for that, though I forgot about it soon enough.
About my pills, by contrast, there can be no forgetting, and nobody needs to tell me that the only proper attitude to take toward them is a thoroughly dignified stoicism. But while stoicism seems admirable at first glance—Tom Wolfe preached its virtues quite memorably in A Man in Full—it fails, like light multi-grain English muffins, to convince. At best it reduces to the “gentleman’s code” of which Johnny Mercer made mention in “One for My Baby,” and the ultimate inadequacy of such codes was painfully well known to the narrator of that desperate song. It’s also been the subject of no small amount of cruel fun, of which this line from Dogville is noteworthy: “I’m going to break two of your figurines first, and if you can demonstrate your knowledge of the doctrine of stoicism by holding back your tears, I’ll stop. Have you got that?”
Even more to the point is this insufficiently remembered exchange between Jeeves and Bertie Wooster in The Mating Season:
“I was endeavouring to convey my appreciation of the fact that your position is in many respects somewhat difficult, sir. But I wonder if I might call your attention to an observation of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius? He said: ‘Does anything befall you? It is good. It is part of the destiny of the universe ordained for you from the beginning. All that befalls you is part of the great web.’”
I breathed a bit stertorously. “He said that, did he?”
“Well, you can tell him from me he’s an ass.”
That he is—or He, if you prefer it that way. Nevertheless, it is ever and always juvenile to kick against the Big Prick of mortality, especially when you know people for whom the clock is ticking far faster than you. Taking pills three times a day beats the living hell out of chemotherapy, and though we have it on the very best of poetic authority that death is “no different whined at than withstood,” I know that nobody as lucky as I’ve been and (so far) continue to be has any business whining about anything at all, ever.
So shame on me for griping about the wholly unmixed blessing of being able to keep my hypertension under control without having to do anything more than take a modest handful of pills each week and see my doctor with reasonable regularity. You can consider this posting an act of public contrition, the postmodern equivalent of spending twenty minutes in the stocks, there to be pelted with rotten vegetables. Feel free to fling them enthusiastically and at will.
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Frank Sinatra sings “One for My Baby” on The Frank Sinatra Show in 1958: