Swan Song

At my age, I have been spending more and more time contemplating The Hereafter. I can’t even count the number of times I find myself walking into a room and then just standing there, thinking: “Now what did I come in Hereafter?”  

For those of us who have surpassed the Biblical age of “Three-Score and Ten,” I think we are so thankful for having lived a long life that we take pride in occasionally forgetting the tiny, less important domestic details, due to the fact that our memories are already overcrowded with all the important stuff. That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

Also, as we reach old age, any type of lifelong commitment seems all the more admirable, since we know just how long “lifelong” can be. I remember learning in a high school biology class that certain animals mate for life. I was surprised that termites do (Yes, yes, I know they’re insects, but don’t get all niggling with me, please). And since their lifespan is only about two years, there’s nothing remarkable about their “lifelong“ mating. 

Much more impressive is that fact that swans mate for life -- and they can live for more than twenty-five years. They are so famously elegant and graceful — and they perform such an elaborate courtship dance — that they inspired Tchaikovsky in 1875 to immortalize them in Swan Lake, one of the most famous ballets of all time. 

And if the lifetime mating of these gorgeous creatures wasn’t romantic enough, many believe that these basically soundless creatures sing a beautiful song, for the first time, moments before their death. Science has found no real evidence for this claim, but it became proverbial in Ancient Greek and Roman mythology and appears frequently in modern Western poetry and art.

The myth still lives today. It now refers to the final work of any creative artist and, more generally, to anyone’s final accomplishment. The Beatles’ 1970 Abbey Road album, their last one, is no doubt the most famous swan song of my musical era, arguably of any era.

And there is such poignancy in the thought of singing sweetly, right before one’s death. Yet these same Ancient Greeks who created the swan song myth were wise enough to warn us mortals about romanticizing the tragedy of death. They gave us, as counterpoint, the lesser-known myth of Tithonus (pronounced “teh-THO-nuss”).

He was the mortal lover of Eos, Goddess of Dawn. She begged Zeus to make him immortal, like she was, but she forgot to ask for eternal youth for him as well. Talk about a colossal memory lapse. As she requested, Tithonus never could die, but neither could he stop aging — babbling mindlessly, unable to lift or even move his limbs, plagued by painful terminal diseases that never quite killed him, eternally doomed to a fate worse than death.

When I lost LeRoy, after forty years together, to a combination of Alzheimer’s and old age, just three months shy of his ninetieth birthday, I believed that I would have given anything to keep him with me. I now see that the beauty in the myth of Tithonus is its emphasis on the rightness of death and the futility of wishing for earthly eternal life. In the natural order, we are aging every moment, slowly and consistently, from the moment of our birth until our aging is naturally ended in death. 

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Tithonus is a dramatic monologue in which the title character bemoans his fate of ever aging, never dying. The poem opens with Tithonus summoning up peaceful images of aging and natural death, which are denied to him:

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapors weep their burthen to the ground.
Man comes and tills the fields and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.

There is the swan again, symbolizing the beauty of the natural end to our days, at least for those of us lucky enough to have lived “many a summer.”  The peace that death brings to us all, no matter how dreadful the dying itself might be (as Tithonus warns us), eventually became a living, active peace within my soul, reserved for LeRoy alone. 

Even on those rare days when all seems to be going wrong, this separate peace whispers that all is right with LeRoy. That assuaging tranquility feels like his gift to me, his beautiful swan song which will sustain me until I shall sing my own. 


Email Elliot at huffam@me.com or click here

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