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Crossing the Bar: Facing Our Own Mortality

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar. 

Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote this contemplative poem three years before his death – purportedly when he was very ill. This column has dutifully given tips and information on healthy aging, so hence the name of the column. But in the back of our minds and sometimes in the front we, like Tennyson, face the certainty of our finite time on earth. In the book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church there is the prayer “O Lord, comfort and succour all them, who in this transitory life are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity.” It is the phrase “transitory life” that reminds me of the picture Tennyson painted with his poem. Most certainly Tennyson was familiar with the Anglican phrase. He is buried in Westminster Abbey. His poem is not so much about anguish but of optimism on his next, longer journey.

Why this morose subject in a column on healthy aging? Tennyson was 52 when he died. Most people who read this column are older than that. Your writer will be 74 years old in August. My father died in August at 74, and this unique set of circumstances explains this personal column on a subject that from time to time we all consider – crossing the bar or, to be less poetic, dying.

Life expectancy for the average U.S. citizen is now 79 years. Women live to be 81 while we men die at 79. Things known to keep us alive that we have something to do with are exercise, not smoking, eating well, avoiding obesity, having a good bank account, being married, and being socially engaged. Factors we have no or little control over that affect our longevity are gender, race, and most importantly genetics. People with “good genes” will live longer than those not blessed with them. Take my father, for example. His father died of a heart attack at age 70, my father died aged 74 after heart surgery for his coronary artery disease, and I have already had my coronary bypass surgery for the same problem that killed my father and grandfather. It is precisely for this reason that I think about entering this same year that was my father’s last!

And while on the subject of contemplative dates, my mother’s father, mother, and sister all died on January 19 in different years. Each January my mother understandably observed the passing of January 19 with a sorrowful joy. I suspect most readers have dates or occasions that remind you of your own mortality. Some of us have pretty good ideas of what we will die from no matter how much we do to practice healthy aging. Some of us already carry a lethal diagnosis for which we are under medical care. Previously we have written about the wisdom of making our wishes known on how we want our final days to be through creating advanced directives and living wills. Some of us have even planned our obituaries and suggested hymns and scripture for “our service.” This might be considered over-the-top planning (no pun intended.)

The bottom line is that it is probably healthy from time to time to ponder one’s end, but not to dwell on it. There is too much we need to be doing to enjoy our healthy aging than to fret over the inevitable end when we, like Tennyson, cross the bar. But, I must confess every time I look at Deveaux Bank and see the setting sun behind it, I do momentarily think of Tennyson and his poem. It is actually comforting looking at that bar in our own backyard.