One of the most quoted lines from 20th century poetry comes from the final stanza of T.S. Eliot’s 1925 masterpiece “The Hollow Men”:
“This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”
It’s been garbled, misappropriated and bent to numerous interpretations, but it has been on my mind the last couple of weeks. It’s difficult to resist thinking morbid thoughts as I head into the latter half of my sixties but it’s not just a matter of drawing nearer to the biblical “three-score and ten” that has me so pensive – as a thymus baby my crippled immune system runs with a twenty year handicap. Chronologically I am 66 but when I get sick I heal like an 86 year old.
…which is why I leapt at the chance to be inoculated with an anti-pneumonia vaccine devised for people age 66 and older. With all the problems I have with upper respiratory infections I was happy enough to get the shot, that is until twenty four hours later when I started to run a fever and rapidly lose strength. By that evening I was weak, couldn’t lift myself from the bed and when I woke up the next day I managed to get to my papa-chair but was unable to dress myself for church. It wasn’t until that afternoon more than 48 hours after getting the injection that I was able to function. As you would expect it was a scary experience, but what bothered me the most was not the fever or the weakness, but rather the fact that I really just didn’t give a damn.
I suspect it is due to fatigue more than just being ill. In the last six weeks I’ve been sidelined with illness four times and while my inner paratrooper balks at describing these bouts as being “seriously sick” the bronchitis I am currently battling has been the least troubling of the recent illnesses, and upper respiratory problems are usually the medical bogeyman for me. All of this has been happening with my chronic autoimmune issues as a backdrop and when combined with idiotic political and cultural quibbling that I can’t seem to escape I find myself totally overwhelmed.
It brings to mind an older gentleman named Clarence that I worked with during the summer of 1969.. He was a veteran of the Great War (World War I) and I was helping him finish display cabinets for the small museum where I was working via the Neighborhood Youth Corps. I was amazed at his skill and knowledge in woodwork but mystified when once or twice each session he’d simply say the word tired. He was evasive when I quizzed him on it but finally admitted it was a sort of mantra he would used when he felt overwhelmed by the world during his seventh decade. His life had spanned from “if man were meant to fly he’d have wings” to watching Neil Armstrong make that first step on the moon and often felt overwhelmed and tired from trying to cope with all the changes.
I now understand how Clarence feels – I am profoundly tired. I’ll bounce back but for now I just want to whimper.