Thursday, August 20, 2009

Judging a Life

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Yesterday our friend Bob Satter celebrated his 90th birthday. And his is a life worth celebrating! In a career devoted to public service (most notably as a Superior Court judge in Connecticut), he’s crafted a full and satisfying life, enriched by his curiosity, love of adventure, and wonder at life’s endless variety. We are lucky to be members of the same book group, where we’ve heard Bob’s views and railings on almost every aspect of human endeavor: our strivings, achievements, and failings, and what we make of ourselves along the way. Several days ago, an essay that Bob wrote (he’s an accomplished writer) was published in The Hartford Courant. Take a few minutes to read what this remarkable man has shared about his state of mind as he celebrates 90 years of living:

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Turning 90, With My Life In Front Of Me
Robert Satter
The Hartford Courant, August 9, 2009

Ninety years of age is not just old, it is ancient. The saying attributed to Satchel Paige, "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you," doesn't even apply. Whatever it was, it passed me long ago.

I was born when Woodrow Wilson was president. One of my earliest memories is of kids stopping our ballgame to watch in wonder as an airplane flew overhead. My generation — that knew the hardships of the Great Depression and fought in World War II — has mostly passed away. It is lonely to outlive one's generation, to be unable to share its remembrances.

I'm the beneficiary of the miracles of modern medicine. I've had one disc operation, two shoulder rotator cuffs repaired, two knees replaced, five heart arteries bypassed and one pacemaker inserted. Sometimes I think old age is punishment for crimes I did not commit.

My heart surgery was an epiphany for me. The day after it I felt so bad I thought, "This is what it must be like to die." I had no fear, no remorse, no regrets. I had lived a long and full life, and if this was the end, I was accepting of my fate. But I did not die. Rather, I lived to say, as the soldier hero in "The Red Badge of Courage" said, "I've been to touch the Great Death and found, after all, it is only the Great Death."

That experience left me pondering what my passing means — the passing of, in the words of Thomas Wolfe, "this wonderful and unique 'I' that never was before and never will be again." Externally, I am a person with a recognizable appearance and mannerisms. I have a characteristic way of talking, walking and gesturing, a distinctive tennis stroke and golf swing.

Internally, I am a bundle of memories of people I've known, events I've experienced, books I've read and poems I can still recite. More and more I live in that interior space, recalling the past. When I die, that presence and circuitry will vanish.

Touching death made me appreciate even more the preciousness of each day. Yet, my life is constricting about me. Friends die and each of their deaths diminishes me. My inability to walk long distances has ended my traveling abroad with my wife. The softening of my voice inhibits my entering into group conversations, and my diminished hearing, when I don't use my hearing aids, isolates me even more.

In gatherings of lawyers and even judges I am one of the oldest present, and know only a few of them. I feel like a spectator at those events, observing from the sidelines. Even at dinner parties, sometimes I feel removed, as if watching my friends enacting their lives from afar.

Often when I do things like vacation in the Berkshires or go to Fenway Park, I have an overwhelming sense of nostalgia that I may be doing them for the last time.

The cruelest irony of old age is that now that I have finally learned to drive a golf ball down the middle of the fairway, it doesn't go very far.

After my death, I will live on in my judicial opinions and my four books, but mainly in the memory of family and friends who loved me. In the end, though, like the men down at Mory's, I "will pass and be forgotten like the rest."

And yet despite this gloomy intimation of my mortality, I am a happy man. I cherish my wife dearly; delight in my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and friends. I go to the courthouse each day, eagerly anticipating the challenge of trying a case or drafting an opinion. I read books and write essays. I see plays and go to concerts. I play tennis with old-timers, and attack the golf course with a fierce determination to shoot my age. I lose regularly in rollicking games of poker to a bunch of scoundrels. I root for the Red Sox.

In the next few years, or who knows when, death may take my life, but in the words of Thomas Wolfe again, "I have lived it 'ere he took it." Really lived it.

Robert Satter is a judge trial referee sitting in the Hartford Superior Court and author of "Doing Justice: A Trial Judge at Work." He turns 90 on Aug. 19.

Link to the essay:
http://www.courant.com/news/opinion/op_ed/hc-satter-turning-90.artaug09,0,162457.story

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If you’d like to know more about Bob Satter, read this engaging oral history interview:
http://oralhistory.rutgers.edu/Interviews/satter_robert.html

And Bob has written four really good books. Highly recommended, all of them.

Doing Justice: A Trial Judge at Work. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980; 2nd ed.. 1990)

A Path in the Law. (Hartford, CT: Connecticut Law Book, 1996)

The Furniture of My Mind: Collected Essays. (Hartford, CT: Carriage House Press, 1999)

Under the Gold Dome: An Insider's Look at the Connecticut Legislature. (New Haven, CT: Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, 2004)

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