John Sorensen turned 92 the day after Christmas, and from the first time I met him, almost a year earlier, he said he wanted to die. Some days he had a sense of humor about it. “The only thing about dying,” he said one day, “is that I won’t be alive long enough to enjoy the fact that I finally died.”
His doctors always gave him the same bad news: his heart and lungs were strong. He had a lovely apartment near Central Park, filled with antiques and with memories of his partner of 60 years, Walter Caron, who died in 2009. “Honey, I’m so much better off than so many people, I know it,” John said at our first interview, which became part of a year long story about six New Yorkers age 85 and older. “Still, I’ve had it. I’m not unhappy, but I’ll be glad when it’s over.”
John died on Sunday, at the Riverside Premier Rehabilitation and Healing Center in Manhattan, where he had gone after falling in his apartment in early May. It was likely that he had lain on the floor for two days before a neighbor heard him call out, his main caregiver, Anne Kornblum, a niece of Mr. Caron’s, said.
It took an event that drastic to get him to leave his home. “Walter is still here for me,” he often said of the apartment, adding that it would kill him to leave. In this he was not far wrong: Once he entered the hospital and then the nursing home, he had largely stopped eating, growing weaker by the day. “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this,” he said after a few days in the hospital. “I wasn’t a big sinner. I wasn’t a saint, either.”
His death followed that of Frederick Jones, another of the six subjects of the “85 & Up” series, who died in Brooklyn on April 24, a few weeks after his 89th birthday. Unlike John, Fred said he hoped to live to 110.
The two men were opposites in temperament, but both were generous with their time and wisdom.
“You won’t get much wisdom from me,” John said at our first meeting. “I know a little bit about a lot of things.”
But this was untrue. Visiting John was like attending an advanced seminar on how to live, and how to die.
He was lonely without his partner, nearly blind from glaucoma and losing the use of his hands to gout; a torn rotator cuff had made it almost impossible for him to comb his hair. The comforts he had wanted from old age — to read, to play the piano — were among the first to escape him.
“I was never afraid of getting old,” he said once. “I’d say to myself, ‘When I get old I’m going to shave every day and I’m not going to drool.’ Wrong. I shave every other day and I drool unbelievably so.”
Yet as his activities and contacts narrowed, he cocooned himself with the things that gave him pleasure: tactile memories of his partner, videos of his favorite movies, CDs of his favorite operas. Any unpleasant memories seemed to have washed away. Instead, he repeated the same stories about his past: the high school art teacher who told him he was gay and should move to New York and become a decorator; the love between his parents; his own reconciliation with his brother. As morbid as our conversations became — and some were extremely dark — John always managed to be cheered, and to lift my spirits as well. Darkness did not discomfit him, and death did not scare him. They were part of life.
“I’m never going to get better,” he told his nurse in the hospital. “You’re pretty anyway.”
He was especially fortunate to have the care of Ms. Kornblum, who visited him in his apartment weekly and called nightly, after “Jeopardy,” even as she cared for her own aging mother and in-laws. In one of my last visits with John at the rehab facility, he asked me if I had a boyfriend, by which I think he meant someone to care for me. The wisdom of John Sorensen was that this was what mattered, this, more than anything.