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Thursday, Aug. 4, 2005 03:15 pm

A final passage

Making the transition from middle age to old

He was always “the strong one” — strong in body, in spirit, in intellect, able to quickly weigh alternatives and act in swift and decisive fashion. Thomas Mencken could strip business process down to bare essentials and construct decision tables in his mind while other parties to the puzzle were still verbalizing generalities. Sixty-five and recently retired, he now used his method of analysis to work his personal decisions.

But this Sunday morning, as happened more and more often of late, the quick and right path eluded him. He was just home from church, sitting on the edge of his bed. He’d stopped his change from church clothes to casual clothes midway, after putting on a pair of walking shorts. He sat blankly. With the question at hand being no more important than what to wear for the rest of this hot summer’s day, he could not concentrate. He was called instead to reminisce, to wander in memories, as if some outside force had demanded that he sum up his life — before he did what he knew must be done.

It was not an unpleasant summing-up. For Thomas Mencken knew early on that the measure of one’s success (or failure) was independent of self, that those he’d touched in life would measure him, for good or bad. And so he was comfortable that no matter his decision here, no matter the finality of it, he would be measured as mostly good by those who knew him.

He was lost this moment in simple memories, 35 years past, and he marveled at the truths memories held. For example, there was 10 times the joy in remembering his daughter learning to ride a bike than in remembering the day he’d earned his pilot’s license.

And the woman in the next room: the greatest joy of all. They’d been inseparable through the very best of his life. Partners so much so they had started to lose individual identity, they were “Tom and Rebecca” now more than they were “Tom” and “Rebecca.” Fine with him — the closer he was identified with her, the better.

He knew she’d be devastated if he went through with it. But in the end, when it was over, when she’d had time to reflect, he knew that she’d understand — she always understood. And that thought, more than any other, carried his decision.

Other memories intruded — recent memories, memories not so pleasant. He was never pain-free anymore: Back pain. Foot pain. Hip pain. His schedule nowadays was full-up with procedures — kidney-stone procedures, epidural-shots-in-spine procedures; procedures seemed to be scheduled for every other month.

Not debilitating pain — it made him angry, more than anything else. Anger at whom he knew not, but anger was new to him; he didn’t like it. He could handle pain both constant and intense if that were to be his lot, but what he could not handle was constantly going to doctors for relief. For if Thomas Mencken had a flaw, it was that he believed he ought not depend upon others for solutions; a strong man ought to solve his own problems.

His mental problems were even more troublesome. He had always been in absolute control, but now he occasionally walked into a room with purpose and forgot the purpose once he was there. Keys were misplaced. Last week the word “scissors” had escaped him entirely; he’d had to make a cutting motion with his index and middle fingers to let the store clerk know what he wanted to purchase.

He visualized his mind in total disarray, a time when, if this life passage need to be decided, it would be decided by others. And that would not do; it would especially not do if Rebecca were forced to make the choice. Thomas Mencken would make this decision alone.

Done. No turning back. It was time now! The instrument of his ending was near at hand, clandestinely packed away at the back of the sock drawer, 10 feet away. Only one more point to consider: Should he try a ruse to send Rebecca from the house, maybe ask her to go to the drugstore and pick up one of his prescriptions? Then do the deed while she was away and spare her the immediate sight of it? Possibly someone other than Rebecca could first discover him?

No. Better that she have some time alone with it before sharing her grief with others. It would be what she wanted. He could almost hear her scream as she discovered him, see her tears. It was time. Now!

He walked slowly to the dresser, pulled out the hidden box, and opened it. He held this symbol of final passage in his hand, felt the power of it, and . . . slipped on the dark dress socks.

The wingtip shoes, already at his feet, followed. Done! Thomas Mencken, “the strong one,” stood unabashed in flower-patterned Bermuda shorts, ankle-high black socks, brown wingtip shoes, and purple golf shirt. He had committed to the outfit heralding passage from middle age to old — and it was good.

He walked to  room, the reading room, and stood, akimbo, in front of her. She looked up from her book, and, as usual, his prediction of action was correct: Her scream was heard two blocks away.

Next week: the pants-over-the-belly/pants-under-the-belly decision.

He was strong! He was ready!

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