I didn’t watch the Bush funeral, but I don’t watch those things usually. I read some of the eulogies, saw some pictures, countless memes and GIFs. I engaged with a national event in a pretty normal way for the 21st century.
Ex-presidents together is an extraordinary thing, given that they live extraordinary lives, but it’s also unusual just in a demographic sense. During FDR’s time in office, about 12 years, the only living ex-president was his immediate predecessor, Herbert Hoover (who lived until 1964, at age 90, and was for a while our longest-lived president), Calvin Coolidge passing away just a few months before his inauguration.
And following the back-to-back deaths of Truman and Lyndon Johnson at the end of 1972/beginning of 1973, there were no ex-presidents alive until Nixon resigned in August 1974. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Hoover went in 1964, and Ike passed away at 78 in 1969.
Then we started collecting presidents. By 1993, when Bill Clinton took office, there were five living ex-presidents to consult with, if that’s what happened (I guess it did, a little). Nixon died a year and change later, at age 81, but we’ve had a remarkable run here. Ford and Reagan would bust Hoover’s longevity numbers, and then Carter and Bush took over. In four months, Jimmy Carter will be have had the longest life of any American president.
Anything can happen, but I don’t see this stopping. Clinton, Bush, and Trump are all essentially the same age (72)—I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least Bush make it into the 90s, and maybe all three. Obama is only 57.
The fact that we’re living longer lives seems counterintuitive, since our lifespans (in the U.S.) have been slightly decreasing (this latest attributed to the opioid epidemic), but also obvious. We’ve had accelerated relativity, which just looks like Baby Boomer nonsense (“40 is the new 30” and so on) but turns out to be pretty tangible when we look around.
And big duh. When I was a kid, it seemed as though at least half the country smoked, something our long-lived presidents avoided (Johnson was the last president who smoked cigarettes, not counting Obama’s dalliances, or JFK’s and Clinton’s fondness for cigars). There are reasons out there, but culture can’t be ignored.
Look at On Golden Pond, made in 1981. The plot begins with a celebration of Norman’s (Henry Fonda) 80th birthday. Norman is frail. He’s having memory issues. He’s never had a sparkling personality, and his crankiness is exacerbated by the indignities of being so damn old.
Now 80 is nothing. Well, not nothing, but not what it was. I know quite a few people in their 80s. They’re different than people in their 60s, of course, but the differences are getting smaller. This is what I mean by accelerated relativity—I think we’ve added a decade to our cultural lifespans in the past 40 years. Ninety is the new 80.
My father would have turned 82 today. Should have turned, I guess. He smoked all the time.
On Tuesday, he’ll have been gone for 15 years. It wasn’t a surprise to any of us, and not only because he’d been diagnosed. I’m serious about the smoking. He smoked more than anyone I’ve ever known. We were seeing death hanging over his head since he was in his late 30s; 67 didn’t seem all that young, in the end.
And now it feels preposterous. It feels like an aberration. It feels as though he was struck down too soon, if by his own hand.
I don’t spend a lot of time on what-if-ing this situation. Five years ago, at my niece’s wedding, I found myself imagining him there, and that was maybe the first and last time.
But seeing those photos from the funeral, the gray and white hair, the aging familiar faces, I understood how my mother felt as she watched celebrities enter their 80s and 90s while her parents died in their early 70s. You’ll never be ready to lose a parent. It feels wrong anyway, but more wrong when it feels too soon, unnaturally soon.
I could be whistling past the graveyard here. My father died four days following his 67th birthday, which for me will occur on July 30, 2025, my 42nd wedding anniversary. It doesn’t even occur to me that I won’t be around, but maybe that’s creeping up my subconscious.
I just thought about the photos, that’s all, and how today is his birthday, and how I still want my father back.