There are people who believe that, after they die, they’ll be reunited with all the people to whom they were closest in life. It’s a beautiful vision – but what condition will we all be in, and at what age?
Few of us would prefer to meet our loved ones again as they may have been in their final days. The expression I often hear from devout believers is that, when they meet again, they will all be in the “prime” of their lives – meaning, I suppose, that time of life when they were at their best. But there may be a broad range of opinions among our fellow mortals as to just when they themselves, or others, were really in their prime.
For one thing, are we talking about physical or mental condition? It is well-known that athletic ability tends to deteriorate far sooner than intellectual powers. Even so, the greatest achievements in such diverse fields as music and mathematics have tended to be accomplished by comparatively young minds – sometimes astonishingly young. As a young Tom Lehrer once remarked, “It is sobering to consider that, when Mozart was my age, he had already been dead for a year.”
I myself have no idea when my prime might have been. I think more in terms of particular moments or episodes. Like many of us, I have family photos showing me at a very young age, usually smiling and looking very happy. But those are the pictures we tend to keep. Who wants to remember the miseries of childhood – or, for that matter, miseries in general?
All I can tell you is that certain scenes in my life do stand out brightly. For example, there was one time in the early 1960s, when I was with Barbara, the girl I lived and traveled with for four years. We were sitting across from each other at the small kitchen table in our apartment in Berkeley, and she was laughing at something I had said. To me, one of the most delightful things about her was the sound of her laughter – and just the fact that I could make her laugh like that. And I was moved, at that moment, to say, “This is how I always want to remember us.”
Another quite different scene comes back vividly. It was 1953. I was 19, and on my way to spend a summer vacation in Israel, sailing from Marseille on a ship of the Israeli ZIM line, called the Artza. We were approaching the end of our journey, and I was standing with an eager group of mostly Jewish immigrants, at the prow, straining to get our first glimpse of what was, to these people, literally the “Promised Land,” a term which, at that moment, had extremely powerful emotional meaning.
Another beautiful fragment of time, which shines in my memory, recalls the hippie era of the 1960s, in San Francisco, when I had set myself up as a regular outdoor public speaker in Golden Gate Park. Those sessions usually went quite smoothly and peacefully, with sometimes many people reclining on the grass to hear me (many of them no doubt enjoying one of the currently popular, though illicit, pharmaceuticals).
But occasionally there was a heckler – one man in particular – who had some strong religious message, which, standing at a distance from me, he chose to deliver to my audience in a loud, sharp voice. You might almost say he was attempting to steal my thunder. One day, when I finally decided that this had happened too many times, I set aside my portable microphone, stepped down from my little milk-crate platform, and slowly advanced towards this evangelical intruder. I don’t know what I intended to do, but what happened next surprised me. I found that several of my listeners had risen from their repose and formed a sort of conga line behind me. Buoyed by this demonstration of support, I continued what now seemed a kind of pilgrimage or crusade, and, when I reached the man, who had persisted with his harangue, I didn’t say anything, but put my arms around him, and gave him a warm, loving, hug.
He responded only by scowling and turning his head away. But he never came back.
So, my “prime times” were just particular precious moments. And if it’s those sorts of experiences I’ll be “re-living” the next time around, maybe the afterlife won’t be so bad.