55 years, 11 months, 9 days

Today I have lived as many days as my mother did. She died when I was 16, and I will always recall the date of her death: April 18. (Also the date on which my former fiancée began, though we did not realize it at the time, the process of dumping me.) I will remember the month of her birth: May. (She discouraged greater specificity because it might have led to either celebrations that would have dulled the edge of her repeated declaration, “I never ask for anything for birthday or my anniversary: I just want you to be nice to me all year long,” or inquiries about the year of her birth, which was not a piece of information she shared lightly.) But this is my last chance to compare when she reached life’s milestones with my own pace down the road. I have already marked the days when I had lived without her as long as I had lived with her, and when I was as old as she had been went she got married—and that was 17 years ago. In a year I will also lap my father, who died six weeks before my mother, and then I will be plunging on into a stage of life they never reached.

I have anticipated this point for some time, and its approach has made me feel quite strange. That might be because I rarely hear anyone else talking about such things. Most friends of my own age still have living parents. My older friends have dealt with parents dying not too early, but, frankly, too late. The first time a person struggling with a parent who had become entirely dependent on his children said, “Brian, you were lucky,” I thought that was a trifle heartless. Having seen more, I now think it was simply true. (And, lest anyone think I had it two easy, my mother’s final illness stretched on for years, and I did not entirely escape the burden of my guardian aunts’ years of decline—although I didn’t have to bear the brunt of it.) My friends don’t think about when they will have lived longer than their parents: they wonder how they’ll live though the years of taking care of them.

My brother crossed this milestone about a year ago, but I don’t expect us to compare notes. He focuses on the positive much more than I do, and he thinks that “dwelling” on this sort of thing unhealthy. But I have been able to talk it over with a cousin. A year after my parents died one after the other of completely unrelated causes, my father’s brother and his wife went the same way. (The Ragen boys’ lungs gave out, due in part to the Judas gene I’m told I have not got; their wives died of particularly cruel forms of cancer.) When I saw Cousin Mike’s at a family wedding, I think he and I were both relieved to find someone else who was troubled by reaching this point. “It was really freaking me out,” he told me. “I knew I had to do something. So I bought a Bentley.” Cousin Mike is an ophthalmologist and spends his days performing LASIK operations. I’m a professional critic and spend my days thinking about things. We’re both native Californians and grew up at the height of the car culture, when gas was cheap and the highways were empty. That experience gave him a solace he can draw on in times of perplexity. It gave me the subject for a book about trying to escape the burden of the past (It’s called A Wreck on the Road to Damascus.)

I don’t have to think very long about why this milestone is troubling. Everyone’s parents–and their whole generation—are barriers between them and age and death. Once they are gone, one feels exposed to the great, unimaginable fact. That is not something everyone likes to be reminded of. After the funeral of the last blood relative in my mother’s generation, I looked at all my first-cousins on that side of the family and said, “Now that Death has completed his work with our parents’ generation, he can turn his full attention to ours.” I don’t recall that anyone regarded that as a helpful contribution to the family conversation.

Of course, almost all my cousins have the other fence against age and death—children. They may or may not be props in one’s old age—but there is a chance. And even if one never thinks about the “serial immortality” provided by generations of heirs, it would be odd if modern people were not moved and comforted by the same things that succored their ancestors. And they wanted heirs. Before the ancient Hebrews had any real hope of heaven, they counted on being rewarded through their posterity.

Somehow, though, I am the only member of my generation to never get married. And only two of us never had children. (My childless cousin, a divorcé, and I both went to Princeton. The only question in the family is whether the place turned us squirrelly or accepted us because we were that way already.) To add some irony to the story, I, the childless bachelor, have written extensively about the malign influence of the myth of the American Adam, who avoids the role of husband and father, and I have devoted myself to the study of heraldry, as symbolic system that encodes marriage and inheritance, and have even been granted a coat of arms—one that will probably never pass to “the heirs of my body.” No one will ever cry about me as they drive to work or while singing that one particular hymn. No one will ascribe his troubles to me when talking to the therapist. No one will think about me on the day he lives as long as I have.

My mother knew many disappointments, but she escaped the ones I am facing. I do have the model of four spinster aunts—only two of whom were regularly described as “crazy.” None of them ever had even a single cat. (And one of them married when still older than I am now.) There are some literary models for the aging bachelor uncle. As I recall, they tend to be disreputable, Dahl’s My Uncle Oswald leaps to mind, as does Digory’s Uncle Andrew from C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew. The popular culture of my formative years gives no better models, unless I want to be Uncle Bill on Family Affair. (If I get Sebastian Cabot as my valet, I’ll take the job, even if it comes with three kids.) Uncle Joe on Petticoat Junction was always “movin’ kind of slow,” but that was just as well, since his sloth was a check on his irascibility. The Beaver’s Uncle Billy was such a rotter and blowhard that they had to transform him utterly before he made a second appearance. A couple decades later Alex on Family Ties got a brilliant bachelor uncle who looked like Tom Hanks—but he turned out to be a violent drunk. Still, there must be exceptions. Uncle Charlie on My Three Sons? Well, I do cook, but I lack the years in the Merchant Marine that would let me wear an apron without looking like a sissy. And the purely literary models are no better. Sterne’s Uncle Toby? Too Protestant. Thackeray’s Major Pendennis? Better connected and worldlier than I can imagine myself. I have to say that spinster aunts come off better in books than bachelor uncles, just as they do on television and in popular culture in general. After all, if you call someone a “funny aunt,” they think she makes people laugh. If you talk about a “funny uncle,” they give you the number of Child Protective Services.

But I hardly need go to a second-degree relative for a model. Though tomorrow I will reach an age mother never did, I have been turning into my mother for years. I have always been the one arranging the parties and hoping people will behave. Lately I have become but a part-time writer and a more-or-less full-time philanthropist, rushing from board meeting to board meeting, and that was how she passed most of her adult life. Sadly, I have not become a social magnet who everyone seems to love, and I have not been placed at the helm of every organization that can attract my support. I suspect, in fact, that people wish that I would just sign my checks and shut up. So I face the days ahead with some trepidation. But perhaps I’ll grow into the role. Besides, I can always buy that Bentley—though the truth is, I am more a Prius sort of guy.