The "Last Furnace I'll Ever Own"

The "Last Furnace I'll Ever Own"

"Look on the bright side," said our friend. "This should be the last furnace you ever buy." Our boiler had conked out with the thermometer near zero Fahrenheit and several feet of snow outside. Lord knows we needed consoling in the depths of this winter of our discontent.

His remark, however, had the opposite effect. Clearly, I am now in a perverse downward spiral with infrastructure in the basement. At 65, my life can be measured in boiler years. With annual tuneups and periodic replacement of worn-out parts, I have 30 years left, give or take. Actuarially, the Social Security Administration allots me less than two more decades on this vale of tears.

Intimation of my eventual demise was not a complete epiphany. In my early 50s I had trained hard for the first road race of spring, and half way through I was passed by, among others, a nun in full habit, including those black shiny shoes. Not long after, an arthritic knee mercifully ended my running career.

When I erected a new fence around my vegetable patch a few years back, digging 3-foot-deep holes in perverse, rocky soil for 20 cedar posts, I remember thinking "I hope I never have to do this again." Various pastimes have fallen by the wayside. I don't ascend our steeply peaked roof to sweep the chimney anymore, or climb to the top of our rickety extension ladder to clean the second-story gutters. I no longer ski (neither downhill nor cross country) or stay up until midnight on New Year's Eve, although I occasionally make it to Weekend Update on "Saturday Night Live."

On the other side of the ledger, I have become a world-class napper.

My mother was nearly 99 when she died. At some point north of my current age, she decided to see if she could still skate as she had as a young woman. So off we trudged to the local pond. Within seconds both of us were flat on our backs. Fortunately, she landed on top of me and we scrambled ashore in one piece. No more pairs skating for Mom and me after that.

My mother and my father, who lived to be 94, attended a lot of funerals. They outlived virtually all their friends. It is like witnessing a slow-moving massacre. The grownups from my youth, virtually all of my teachers, our neighbors, all of my aunts and uncles, some contemporaries, too, are gone. My father kept me posted on each and every passing; I thought it a bit macabre. Now I find myself turning to the obituary page first.

Mom outlived Dad and that was the saddest part of her final years. Nothing seemed to make sense after that. But she was made of sturdy stuff. Once, toward the end, she mused wistfully if she was ever going to die. I didn't know how to respond. Her body, which had let her down in so many ways, stubbornly clung to life.

Unlike my mother, who raised five boys, I never stopped skating and don't plan to. My brother Michael has 10 years on me and he skates three times a week. I don't want to contemplate the time when I can no longer lace them up. I do find myself wondering, after scoring the occasional goal, how many more I have left in the old twig.

I still compete in a low-octane senior hockey league. These days there are hardly any fights in our "over-40" games, although more than a few skaters appear to be 30-something. During one quasi-confrontation, my younger opponent demurred, explaining to me: "I don't fight the elderly."

I was relieved and humiliated, in equal measure.

Our dog Sophie gave me and my wife something of a preview. She was older than us in dog years when she passed away recently. She hadn't chased deer or coyotes for years. Toward the end I had to carry her up and downstairs. She would conjure a fierce growl at this daily humiliation.