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What Do a Bunch of Old Jews Know About Living Forever?

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The next day, Olive noticed a slight wheeze. Antibiotics were prescribed. By Friday, Happy was noticeably weaker while awake and began making odd gestures in her sleep, as if reaching for something in the air in front of her. Olive believed it was Happy’s late husband. “I know that you are here for Happy,” Olive told him, “but please not now.” Over the next two days, Happy would sleep, wake cheerfully, ask to get dressed, have a bite to eat, then fall asleep again, reaching.

There can come a time when people no longer live for themselves but for those who, in a strange reversal, have come to depend on them. Selfishly, we may want our old loved ones to just keep going, if only as a bulwark against our own mortality. Tommy Kahn’s hope is that Irving “can live for another five, ten years, something like that.” Olive wished Happy would live forever.

But on the afternoon of September 25, six weeks shy of her 110th birthday, Helen “Happy” Faith Kahn Keane Reichert died while napping in her recliner, with her lipstick on and her nails newly done in Bungle Jungle red. Until that moment, she had been, many thought, New York City’s oldest woman: a title that, of necessity, is often transferred, if rarely as gently. No breathing tube, no defibrillator paddles—just oatmeal for breakfast, a soft-boiled egg and jam for lunch, and the reaching in the dark for whatever was coming next.

When Beth Keane told her husband the news, he became silent. “It was a deep silence that lasted a minute or two,” she wrote to me in an e-mail. “Then he turned to me and said, ‘You know, I have been expecting this’ ”—and has not spoken of it since. Irving had pretty much the same reaction. Still, the two brothers met at Peter’s house five days later and sat alone for a long time in the kitchen “within arm’s reach of each other,” Beth reports. Irving faced away from the view, which Peter, of course, couldn’t see.

If they were wondering about the value of living so long when it meant facing the death of everyone they grew up with, you can hardly blame them. Even with the miraculous enhancements sure to come in the next decades, longevity is a mixed blessing. For Jews, who are enjoined by their faith and history and meddling grandmothers to be healthy and live long, and to have children who will do the same, it can become such an obsession as to make the time gained seem unworth the worry. Nothing in Barzilai’s arsenal of misspelled genes will address that.

Still, no one wants to stop trying—and I say this as a grumpy 75- or 80-year-old man. In that regard, the real significance of SuperAgers like the Kahns may be in demonstrating the choices more and more of us will face. Do you give up or keep reaching toward the future? Shortly before dying, while Olive was helping her drink some tea, Happy “suddenly held my stomach with her two hands,” Olive says. “And looking on my tummy, she started saying ‘So cute, very very cute.’ That’s the last time she hold me!”

Olive starts to weep. “My problem is I never thought of her age, I treated her like she can go on and go on and go on. But I know she’s with her loved ones. And she left me knowing I was with mine.”

Olive’s baby, it has since been decided, will be named not Faith but Happy. May she live to be …


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