My Secret Game

A personal essay by Celeste Cheyney

I’m not sure exactly when I began to glance at the obituaries of public figures, featured daily in the Times. It must have been around the year when I reached age 65. Every month, the arrival of the social security check, although welcome, was a reminder of that inescapable fact of life – mortality! After a while it became clear that snacking on sunflower seeds, running three miles a day, and even swallowing a daily ration of green tea while holding my nose, could not guarantee that I’d be here forever. I started to wonder how much time I had left. I not only glanced at those obituaries; I began to play my secret game.

People read the obituaries for a variety of reasons. In her later years, my mother read them to keep up with news about friends. Colleagues of mine have used them when searching for rent-controlled apartments in the West Village and Chelsea. A friend who is a movie buff reads an obit all the way through when it’s about a childhood idol like Esther Williams, who passed away in June at age 91. He claims that reading about a life well lived inspires him to be a better person. I read the obituaries primarily to play my secret game.

Every morning when the Times is spread out over the kitchen table and I’ve had my fill of tribal murders in Afghanistan, floods in Europe, and wildfires in the Southwest, I’m ready to play. To keep my game secret I make sure nobody else is around. I take out the pencil and notepad carefully stashed in the cabinet next to the table. Then I turn to the obituaries of public figures and focus on the numbers. Of course I don’t count the age of the racing car driver who was killed in a crash at 31 or the rock star who died of an overdose in some Hollywood mansion at 23. I look at the ages of those who have exited in a more conventional way, then add the numbers and average them. If the average age is greater than mine ( which, thank goodness, it still usually is), I subtract my age from it and figure that’s how many years I have left.

When I play my secret game, some days are better than others. Some are actually quite reassuring. If the deceased featured on a given day have just died at 98, 96, and 91, which makes the average 95, I smile and blurt out “Yes!” They all been blessed with long, and probably satisfying, lives. I’m genuinely happy for them. More important, their longevity is good for ME. When I subtract my age from 95, it means I still have plenty of years left! (Naturally they’ll come with excellent health, general good fortune, and IRP membership to the very last day.) If the deceased have expired at 91, 89, 85 and 83, with an average of 87, which still leaves some margin of safety, I smile. When the numbers are 82, 79, and 73, which brings the average to 78, it’s getting a bit close but still brings a sigh of relief. However, when the numbers are 70, 66, 53 and 51, which averages out to 60, I frown and blurt out “No!” How sad that these people have died so young when others get to live so long. It just isn’t fair. I feel a bit guilty about having outlived them, but grateful that I’m still here.

Of course a long life is not always a blessing. Poor health and other problems that may be beyond our control can actually make it a curse, but let’s not talk about that.

On a good day it feels as if playing my secret game might actually offer some protection against mortality, complete with an array of other benefits. I remind myself that it’s only a game, hope for the best, and try to enjoy each day to the fullest.



Celeste Cheyney, while working with a remarkable woman who was Jewish, British and Deaf, was inspired to write a memoir about the woman’ experience as a child in England during World War II. “Making Sense of It All” was published by Gallaudet University Press. Celeste has also been inspired by writing classes at the IRP.