In these pages a few years ago, I reported on some of my findings at having reached very old age. I was then in my early 90s. Five years further down the hill, I have a few more matters to note. Certainly I have not gained in wisdom, but due to so little physical activity and fewer social goings-on, I have begun to inhabit the static house of my head. To my surprise I find it a somewhat well-furnished abode, occupied with what I remember, have heard recently, and observed.
For some reason I have begun to collect symbols of old age. For instance, there are my recurrent dreams about coral down to which I snorkeled in the Caribbean many years ago. For millions of years it formed a marvelous, brightly colored landscape of living organisms. But now, close to the shores where ships spill their oil and tourists like to stand on it, the coral has died. Diminished schools of fish still swim gallantly in and out of the moribund, gray housing—to me a fitting sign of old age.
Or another: years ago in Maine I lived through a bad ice storm that damaged many of the indigenous trees. Since then I have a fondness for birches. They were severely hit by that terrible storm but, miraculously, not destroyed. Bent over, they were never again able to straighten up. Around me now I see replicas of their posture among old people. The birches have become for me symbols of the stricken elderly, who will never regain, under the weight of time, their youthful erectness.
Reliable evidence exists of the reading preferences of the very old. Some, of necessity, want large-print or audio books. But in whatever form, mysteries and murder stories, crime tales, and romances seem to be all that older readers prefer. They like well-plotted stories because these books contain carefully detailed positive resolutions and satisfying conclusions.
Novels that end in ambiguity do not appeal to those whose long lives contain too many unresolved finishes. Many people and events have disappeared from their lives without explanation. When they read now, they enjoy being engrossed in narratives (the longer the better) that permit them to live in them, as they often say, to enjoy twists of the plot, and finally, to arrive at a comforting certainty.
But it is also true that there is a small group of ancients, like me, who find pleasure in books that detail the conditions of decay in which we now reside. I am thinking of Sándor Márai’s Embers, Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Philip Roth’s Everyman, and William Trevor’s fine The Old Boys.
Some accurate portraits of the old come from writers who astonished me because they were so young when they wrote about their elders: John Updike was 26 when he published The Poorhouse Fair, and Muriel Spark wrote a witty novel about old people, Memento Mori, when she was only 40.
BEST OF THE LOT
But the novel that remains almost intact in my faded mind is All Passion Spent. In it, Vita Sackville-West wrote about 88-year-old Lady Slane, whose husband, a well-known diplomat, has just died. She has led a long, devoted life of service to him and raising their six children. Downstairs, those children, now in their 60s, have decided her future. She will live six months at a time with each of them in their London houses. “Sharing the burden” is how one child describes it, and another says they will “bear the brunt” of her care.
The frail old lady comes down, listens politely, quietly, to their plans and then announces that she does not wish to live with any of them, or in London, but has seen a small house in Hampstead that she will rent. The children are stunned: “Will it not look a little odd in the eyes of the world, when you have so many devoted children, that you should choose to live alone in retirement in Hampstead?” her son asks.
It might, Lady Slane says. “Besides, I have considered the eyes of the world for so long that I think it is time I had a little holiday from them.”
They tell her the grandchildren will come by regularly to keep her in touch and to check on her. No, she replies, “they are too young.”
Against their wishes, the old lady travels alone to Hampstead, rents the house from an elderly owner, arranges for renovations by an elderly carpenter, both of whom she befriends, and settles happily there.
What happens then is ironic and, to an old reader like me, most satisfying. At first she resists meeting a forgotten old acquaintance (“I seem to have lost my taste for strangers”), but then she does. When he dies, he leaves his huge estate to her. The coda is gratifying and unforgettable.
My reading ability is much diminished, but with the aid of The New York Times online, I am able to read one of my favorite sections, its paid obituaries. That part of the newspaper has a fascinating template, providing the reader with a singular view of the American family. According to it, every father or husband who has died was beloved, revered, or respected. His children were adoring or proud, his grandchildren cherished and always loving. These adjectives are interchangeable but omnipresent, and equally applicable to a dead mother. Both will always be sorely missed.
According to this section, no one ever leaves this world alone. The revered dead always die peacefully, always surrounded by family, often with the additional presence of friends. This provides a lovely diorama of a jam-packed bedroom with hardly room for a nurse or doctor. Privately, I believe that all those relatives and friends are actually in an adjoining room, or downstairs, impatiently awaiting word of the end and discussing in hushed voices the possible terms of the will. The New Yorker cartoon at left offers a more credible view of that bedroom.
FAST IS WORSE
I, like others of my age, decry the contemporary world’s rapidity. Scenes in films, traffic, talk radio, television, and telephone—and yes, fast food—define this overwired age. So it was comforting to read a newspaper account recently of the celebration of Audubon Day at Louisiana State University’s library.
How did it celebrate? A young woman wearing white gloves stood for two or three minutes before a volume of John James Audubon’s Birds of America opened to one beautiful page. Very slowly she turned to the next page. A small audience of awed spectators watched. What was most impressive about the description of the activity was the newspaper’s headline: “The Joys of Slow Looking.”
This led me to search in my decrepit files to find a card sent to me by a fine small press years ago. It showed a hand-carved block print of a snail followed by Daniel A. Waters’s quatrain:
E-mail rushes to and fro
Since paper letters seem too slow,
But we prefer the status quo;
This card was sent by escargot.
Benjamin Franklin put it succinctly: “Make haste slowly.”
At a dining room table in a retirement community, a loquacious old lady talked nonstop to her silent, captive audience. One of them, an avid theatergoer in his younger days, finally was able to break in. He proceeded to quote the actor Ralph Richardson, who once said: “The most precious things in speech are the pauses.”
I have met up with people who think of their old age as a second chance. One lady told me she had taken up the violin when she turned 80. She said she had tried it at 12 and did not succeed, but she was determined to try again, and went blithely off to her lesson.
A 90-year-old man was learning Italian at the College of Lifelong Learning.
“Going to visit Italy?” I asked.
“Oh, no. I want to read Dante before I die.”
Recently I heard the story of a chap in his late 80s who went to the third session of a Posit Science Fitness Program at a college nearby. It was aimed at improving memory function. Asked if it had helped thus far, he said, “Yes. Today I remembered to go to class.”
A favorite topic of conversation among old people at cocktail gatherings, often called Five O’Clocks, is the state of everyone’s health. One time, to have something to contribute, I read to the people in my group a quotation from Hippocrates: “It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.”
After a silence a witty lady said, “I agree. And when someone goes into great detail about her ailments, I tell her she is giving us an organ recital.”
People, all over 80, talked at dinner about writing their memoirs. “Memoirs now get published, and they sell well, better than novels,” one man said. Everyone agreed. Someone remembered that Montaigne had written, “And because I found I had nothing else to write about, I presented myself as a subject.” There was no further comment.
WE LIVE TOO LONG TO LIVE WELL
Consider the Bible’s story of Job. God, with uncharacteristic generosity, and in spite of the terrible trials and afflictions he had inflicted upon him, granted Job 100 more years of life in reward for his steadfast faith. But God failed to specify under what conditions these additional years would be lived. Could he have intended Job to go on living without more of the customary ailments and suffering of old age? (In our own day, people do live longer, but those additional years are more likely to be filled with disease and failed mental acuity.)
“We live too long,” a very old priest once said to me. “It would be interesting to imagine a happy medium to life’s long stretch. Suppose the Creator had fixed our life span to end somewhere in the middle years, say at 50, while most of us are still full of optimism, good health, and productive energy, with all our mental powers intact. If life ended at that time, all the slings and arrows of outrageous old age could be avoided. Life would have an upbeat, positive conclusion. We would die on the crest of the hill. There would be no downhill progress. Think of that.”
ASCENT AND DESCENT
In their early maturity the young strive to move up. First they rent. Then they acquire a small house and car, then larger ones for their growing families. Prosperity may bring a vacation home, a second car. But for the very elderly the progress is inevitably reductive, downhill, from houses to house or condo or apartment, to a room, then to a bed somewhere.
The bed is our temporary holding station. There old persons, frail and sometimes demented, play the waiting game until, in Emily Dickinson’s memorable image, bed gives way to a swelling of the ground, the dusty berth.
The descent is complete. But I like to think that, very near the end, it is possible that the dying may remember, however briefly, the exhilaration of the ascent.
Very occasionally among some elderly friends of mine the subject of religious belief comes up. In one late-night conversation with a friend, I described my lifelong but unsuccessful search for belief in God. Even after I gave up on the pleasure that the rites and practices of church gave me and there seemed to be nothing left, Something—some vague sense of Something—remained with me. “Perhaps it was the search that gave you pleasure,” my friend suggested.
He sent me a copy of Walter Isaacson’s life of Albert Einstein, marking up the chapter he wanted me to read. It contained statements about the great physicist’s faith. Asked if he was religious, Einstein said, “Try to penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.” He was awed, he said, by the transcendent order he saw in the universe. “The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds.”
My friend said, “I believe you have a fellow traveler in your faith.”
Some poetry anthologies contain pages celebrating the pleasures of being old. Most of these collections are compiled by young editors, I believe. The poems are full of cheerful verse of the Robert Browning grow-old-along-with-me, the-best-is-yet-to-be school of thought. But the poet laureate for those of us who support a less optimistic cast of thought is Philip Larkin. The novelist Julian Barnes, who shares his fears, called Larkin “our national connoisseur of mortal terror.” Larkin’s great poem is “Aubade.”
The poet wakes “at four to soundless dark.” He stares at what he knows will lighten again, the edge of the window curtain, and sees “what’s really always there: / Unresting death, a whole day nearer now.”
This terror, his overwhelming fear of dying, mounts as he thinks about the negatives in his life: having done no good, not having loved, time wasted. He is overcome by the dread of being dead,
… the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
For a few moments the poet contemplates his dire state: not to be here, “no sight, no sound, / No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, / Nothing to love or link with.”
But it is fortunate that no one can long entertain the thoughts of death, “the anaesthetic from which none come round.” Slowly the light rises, the terrible moments pass, he must get up and work. Then, the laureate provides in another poem what is, to my mind, the lethal finale:
This is the first thing
I have understood:
Time is the echo of an axe
Within a wood.
As I approach the bottom of the hill, like Lady Slane I mourn the loss of youth, the time (in her words) “when feeling burst its bonds and poured hot from the foundry, when the heart seemed likely to split with complex and contradictory desires.”
But unlike her, and even in my lackluster penultimate days, I find I have not quite spent all of my passions, slight as they may be. They include an attachment to the Atlantic Ocean in which I swam for so long; a deep love for the paintings of Cézanne and the architecture of the Mayans; a most irresponsible fondness for martinis; an abiding affection for the sound of opera and early music; an enduring bibliophilia, even though I can no longer see to read the books I have kept on my shelf. There are the few persons to whom I still feel connected, a beloved elderly cat, and a team I cherish despite its recent ineptitude, the New York Yankees.
Moles were once believed to be blind. Their eyes were hidden under a layer of skin. “Traces of these covered organs can be found if that skin is cut,” recent research reports. But when moles are close to death, they begin to open their eyes. I share the mole’s lack of sight and, like them, I have spent too much of my life without seeing much that is around me. But perhaps it may happen that, close to the end, my eyes will open onto a mysterious spectacle—it is possible to hope—of Something more.