There is, I think, a point in every lifetime under which a fulcrum is hiding: we may not have known it at the time, but from that point on, it's all downhill. I think I caught on somewhere around my forty-ninth birthday:

Early on, there are hints of the standard-issue Fear of Death that comes as a free gift with every birth. And while that's disturbing, it's not extraordinarily so: most people tend to wilt just a little when contemplating the Grim Reaper. Some of us are better at sneering at it than others — "Yo, Death, I got your sting right here," said James Lileks — but we laugh at Death because we know Death will have the last laugh on us. (Christ, I'm quoting Lou Grant now. And it's not "I hate spunk," either.) The passages above, though, make it pretty clear that knowing I'm going to die isn't what scares me; what scares me is knowing I'm going to die alone. Some day, more likely some night, that "finite number of breaths" will be reached, everything will come to an end, and no one will know until two or three days later because some mundane task wasn't performed on time, some phone call wasn't returned, or, most absurdly, because this goddamn Web site wasn't updated.

Which is pitiful enough, I suppose, but not a patch on the demise of this poor fellow:

Three months ago in an apartment on the outskirts of Osaka, Japan, Haruki Watanabe died alone. For weeks his body slowly decomposed, slouched in its own fluids and surrounded by fetid, fortnight-old food. He died of self-neglect, solitude, and a suspected heart problem. At 60, Watanabe wasn't old, nor was he especially poor. He had no friends, no job, no wife, and no concerned children. His son hadn't spoken to him in years, nor did he want to again.

For three months no one called, no one knew, no one cared. For three months Watanabe rotted in his bedsheets, alongside pots of instant ramen and swarming cockroaches. The day that someone eventually called, he came not out of concern but out of administration. Watanabe had run out of money, and his bank had stopped paying the rent.

And so the landlord, getting no answer on the telephone, decided to pay a visit on his dawdling tenant. He was not at all prepared for what he found.

The police came; they investigated with procedural dispassion and declared the death unsuspicious. This wasn't suicide in the traditional sense, they said, but it did seem that the deceased had wanted to die. They'd seen it before, and it was an increasingly common occurrence throughout Japan: a single man dying, essentially, from loneliness.

There is a fine line, I suspect, between "wanting to die" and "no longer wanting to live." And I am forced to wonder how close I've gotten to that line in the past sixty-odd years. I am not suicidal in any sense I'm aware of; but I have been — I have been hospitalized for it, in fact — and if the desire to shuffle off this mortal coil is on the low side, the desire to postpone that shuffle is not particularly intense.

Still, what would lead Japanese men — it's almost always men — to let themselves slowly slip away? Perhaps it's simple demographics:

In Japan, the traditional three-generational structure of the home is breaking down, as space in the big cities decreases and the costs of maintaining longer-living relatives rises. Yasuyuki Fukukawa, a psychologist at Waseda University in Tokyo, believes that the aging population is now "beyond the capacities of family care." Today, 1 in 5 Japanese is over the age of 65. Private health care is expensive, and there is a shortage of state-provided facilities for the elderly: Some 420,000 senior citizens are waiting for beds in nursing homes. Those who cannot find or afford help do not wish to burden other family members, who may not live nearby and may be struggling themselves. As a result, they choose to live alone, where, unable to access the level of assistance they need, they often die undignified deaths.

I relate to that entirely too well. My children are four hundred miles away, and while they're not exactly struggling, they're not in a position to take in an older relative. (Their mother is still alive and reasonably active; her mother is in one of those Retirement Villages.)

But that may not be the issue either. When I was about four, I somehow decided that my continued existence was contingent on earning my keep; I could not assume that my presence would be tolerated on the basis of love or something equally silly. While this gave me a socially acceptable work ethic, it also apparently screwed up the parent-child bond to a degree I couldn't then imagine. Diane Ackerman writes in A Natural History of Love:

When, through malevolence or circumstance, the early bond between parent and child is damaged, the psychological repercussions are profound. Such a person may end up with marital problems, personality disorders, neuroses, or difficulty in parenting. A love-thwarted child spends its life searching for that safe, secure relationship and absolutely loving heart which is its birthright. As an adult, missing cues that might lead to just such a relationship, it judges people harshly, trusts no one, and becomes exiled and alone. A child that's unsafe, or rejected, or deprived of affection, feels anxious, becomes obsessively clingy, and doesn't take many chances. Assuming that it will be spurned, that it is the sort of person one could only reject, it may try to be self-sufficient and disinherit love, not risk asking anyone ever to truly care. Such a child becomes afflicted with itself, and needs no other accuser, no other lynch mob. It feels as if it has been caught red-handed in the midst of a felony — its life.

Had I a tombstone large enough, that entire paragraph could be on it.

But you can see why this endless documentation of my life and times goes on, day by day, year by year. For all I can tell, it's the one thing that keeps me from slipping away into the darkness like the pseudonymous Mr. Watanabe. And if some day you fail to see something new, you probably should suspect the worst.

The Vent

  1 July 2015

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