The letter

Every day except Sunday, I walk expectantly to the mailbox. Sometimes I’m accompanied by my adorable dog, Fizbo. Sometimes I go alone, just to maintain my alpha dominance.

I do this out of lifelong habit, though I know it’s become little more than a quaint and anachronistic holdover from a world that no longer exists. After returning home, I feel like I should meet a girl for a soda, help Pa shoe the horses, and listen to a radio broadcast of Fibber McGee.

Back in the good old days, the mail still held the promise of something. A long-awaited letter from the Bavarian beauty you met on the Orient Express was held reverently in your hand as you slid a trembling thumb under the seal. You knew the parchment inside would be soaked with either perfume or tears, and that in impeccable penmanship she would profess eternal love or announce its tortured end. Somehow, my cable bill never quite measures up.

That’s the problem, of course. There’s no intrigue or romance in the mail anymore. I can’t remember the last time someone sent me something pleasant or meaningful via the United States Postal Service. It’s all utility bills. One-time-only offers. Lingerie catalogs, and political leaflets-which are basically just lingerie catalogs with airbrushed adjectives instead of photographs.

Sometimes to fight these negative feelings, I like to remind myself how fantastic it is that we, as taxpayers, are given the opportunity to subsidize the daily delivery to our homes of things we don’t want, along with the bonus privilege of having our identities stolen by mail thieves submitting credit card offers on our behalf. It’s quite a privilege. As budget deficits soar, we should definitely keep funding this extraordinary service.

I only mention all this so you’ll understand my state of mind as I made my customary trudge to get the mail one day last week. My expectations were low, my cynicism high. I had no reason to believe this trip would be unlike any other. Until I opened the box and there it was-The Letter.

I’d probably been subconsciously fearing this moment for some time. I knew it was inevitable, like death, taxes, and another season of Survivor. But still, I wasn’t happy or emotionally prepared when the envelope appeared-my official invitation to membership in the AARP.

With all my whining about nothing memorable ever arriving by mail, you’d think I would have been happy on some twisted level. But in its bumbling eagerness to secure my support, this large and supposedly sophisticated organization made several unfortunate missteps that got our relationship off to a rocky start.

For one thing, according to its Web site, the AARP “helps people 50 and over improve the quality of their lives.” Since I’m barely 40, I don’t understand how they even got my name, or why they didn’t bother to check their math before frightening me with this premature correspondence. With just a simple subtraction of 1960 from 2010 they would have quickly realized that… oh. Never mind.

Their next faux pas was to ask for my birth date-a needless indignity, since they obviously already know what it is or I wouldn’t have received the letter in the first place. Apparently they just wanted me to suffer the added humiliation of writing it down, perhaps as some sort of misguided mortality-acceptance therapy.

Although I was generously invited to extend the one-year initial membership offer to a five-year term, I found I didn’t share their actuarial optimism. The notion of a membership fee also put me off. When I opened the mailbox that day, it was like the AARP had smacked me in the face with a fistful of my soon demise. And now they wanted to be reimbursed for that cowardly act?

In a further example of baffling insensitivity, the packet included a punch-out AARP ID card. Again, they should have known better, since at my advancing age it will be difficult for me to muster the strength or motor skills necessary to extricate it from its plastic shell. I may need to contact the good people at the Center for Aging Services Technology for an assistive device.

As an additional misguided inducement to join their club, I was offered a free travel bag. Since for most Americans, no event signals the last miles of life’s journey more clearly than the dreaded letter from the AARP, to be offered luggage for the trip was metaphorically very upsetting. But at least if that journey takes me through Arizona, maybe I’ll be able to prevent deportation by flashing that new ID card.

My final complaint was with the cheery welcome note from AARP’s CEO, who promised that membership would help me “make the most of life over 50.” But what he failed to understand is that the key to achieving that goal is denial, a blissful condition he totally undermined with his unsolicited letter. I’m a Boomer. Until the mail arrived, I had been under the impression I would live forever. So thanks a whole heaping lot, Mr. Addison Barry Rand. Would you care to ruin the ending of Lost for me as well?

Okay, that feels better. Cathartic even. In fact, I’m actually feeling a little bad about my rant. I’m sure the AARP is a wonderful organization run by lovely people who want only the best for me and my kind. So I’m getting old. I need to accept that rather than shooting the well-meaning messenger.

And now that I’ve calmed down and stopped to think about it, I realize I should be nothing but grateful for what they’ve done. After all, my mortality notification letter arrived in the same week I was completely out of ideas for this column.

Maybe I’ll be getting that free travel bag after all.

Gary Tetz is a legendary long-term care commentator based in Walla Walla, Washington.

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Long-Term Living 2010 June;59(6):51-52

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