On Aging

Taking measure of a life well lived

Alberto Bogo/Stocksy
Alberto Bogo/Stocksy

Aging is slippage. Wax, then wane, toward humble pie, another day, another dollar. I was born a month after Franklin Roosevelt was elected president. So I clean my plate at meals and follow that famous bit of fatherly advice, Neither a borrower nor a lender be. Wry but spry, I never mortgaged my future and though I pee more often now, my wallet, at least, is tumid. When dressing, I may forget my second shoe; I wear long underwear for half the year. Sightlessness has various effects. If you’ve driven for almost 70 years, shouldn’t that be enough? So many worries hitch a ride on your car. Oil change, check the tires. The BBC will give you world news when you can’t read the Times. Exercise cautiously, not to slip or pull a ligament. Tamp down one’s crabby self. The luxury of shedding a rigid daily schedule should be solace enough. In a free country we each have written our own script for decades, and patience is a craft we ought to have mastered long ago. Pop-up memories produce the names of five girls from my eighth-grade class. God bless them if they’re okay. A lot has changed for girls since 1945, and for someone headed for the writing game as well. My first agent and my best publisher were handling William Faulkner at the same time as me. That is, it was possible then to be William Faulkner—a towering genius in a now-eclipsed field. I didn’t know him but did meet two other Nobel winners: Steinbeck and Bellow, whose careers would seem miniaturized nowadays.

Dale Somebody was the first real cowpoke I ever knew; Trevor Bale and Mabel Stark, the first tiger rasslers. Eric Robbins, Time’s man in Africa, introduced me to that fabled continent. Old age generates a jumbo screen inside your brain on which fitful memories vividly flit. Himalayan rope bridges; Rome in the ’60s versus 2013; the Matisse Chapel in Vence shown to me by the beauteous Countess Karolyi of Hungary—an intimate friend of Bertrand Russell’s—and her houseguest Ralph Hotere, the Māori painter. Big Apple scenes on Delancey Street and Yogi Berra’s first at bat in Yankee Stadium. Joey Giardello, the middleweight champ, on First Avenue, and Jessica Lange tending bar on Christopher Street. Being a downtown person, I didn’t know a lot of fame hounds but did have neighbors like Grace Paley, Philip Glass, Donald Barthelme, and Seymour Krim.

In Iowa’s Amish country, I lunched with the faithful, in San Francisco with the Beats. I never had a bad romantic relationship, so no street anywhere would be painful to revisit except in the sense of a comrade gone. But loss becomes ubiquitous as the years wane—friends of both sexes and more than just the human species. My setter, Flash, at Taggart’s Pond; my chums Tom Hunt and Jimmy Dunn at our school-bus stop; then Rutger Smith, another classmate, bloated with cancer in middle age. Gone is the me who used to walk 50 blocks for a lunch date in New York, and the journalist who shouted at the president of South Sudan back when he was just a murderous warlord in 1993. I’ve boarded ships near Nome and Ushuaia, loved the Nile and the Nulhegan, and watched my daughter’s birth in New York Hospital, so groping for a curbstone with my cane feels less like a comedown than a phase. White hair isn’t ugly, nor a hobbled knee. Your posture may resemble another animal’s on occasion, like a spider or a goat, as you age. Emergency and common-sense responses kick in.

Absent pain, the passage to death is often quite benign at the end, in my experience as a diener in a morgue 60 years ago. The bodies tended to wear that dawning smile I’d seen on Etruscan statuary. I expect my mouth will be the same. It’s the living who weep.

I trust everyone a little, few a lot. I’ve never known someone I would cross the street to avoid, never been beaten up. Have I lived too sheltered a life?

Old age is a slippery slope, but if you enjoyed sledding as a kid and improvising ever since, it shouldn’t be degrading. A pile of books-on-tape or unread magazines, a dog learning that its once-wise owner, huffing and puffing, has become worryingly fallible. No more “bearding the lion,” so to speak; we’re in survival mode, our eyes with crow’s-feet around them from squinting. Old age is not for sissies, the saying goes, though sissies undergo it. Passively, however, there are rewards, like no alarm clocks and the precedence given when traveling. Young folk feign curiosity asking about family history. Dozing off is forgiven and often a pleasure, and bores aren’t insulted. Yet, our widescreen memory enriches our dreams. Movies and bus fares get discounted, and the genders intermingle without fuss or sexual innuendo. Forgetting to put your teeth in, looking tously and slipshod with scratchy beard, pallid, a scruffy ’jama guy, is okay. If you shoplift, claim senility. I haven’t had many friends slide off the deep end—no incorrigible crooks or drunks—just a few who died too soon from dropping a hair dryer in the bathtub or jumping off the Mystic River Bridge.

“Cat got your tongue?” we’ll ask a sulky grandchild, as our grandparents asked us, but provoke hilarity because it’s another era. Or, “Have you got a frog in your throat?” We may refer to “single-wing” football or a “three-bagger” in baseball as “the cat’s meow.” Grandparents, if lucky though, bear a tincture of grandeur. We get command performances on guitar or piano, without the eon of practice. Money and equanimity help, unless the dribbling away of energy has sapped our panache. Do mothers still question their daughters about “petting”? Mickey Mantle was a newbie to me: no Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, my hero. And who could top Jack Benny and Fred Allen? Or Roosevelt? Talk about greatness in politics.

I know the old days seem always the best days to oldsters. My father, after his death sentence at 63 from a cancer doctor, tried to comfort himself by telling me history only repeats, so he must have already witnessed whatever was going to happen. Mentally, of course, I demurred but now, half a century later, need to resist similar fallacies. His grandfather had fought at Shiloh and marched through Georgia. Around my own 50th birthday, I returned to New York’s Museum of Natural History to delightedly confirm I’d visited all of the scenery—from cheetah veldt to caribou taiga—I’d pined to see when I was 10 or so. I hope my grandsons will manage the same. As for my father, his legal work took him to all the NATO capitals in Europe, which for him was like my wish to span taiga and veldt.

So we have our big-screen memories of the Seine or whatever. That’s geezerdom, plus old friends from 20 settings who drift to mind. Ordinary lives, ordinary guys, and women generally a little nicer than the men. I trust everyone a little, few a lot. I’ve never known someone I would cross the street to avoid, never been beaten up. Have I lived too sheltered a life? I think we sculpt our own lives. A “ladies’ man” grooms himself to play around, or smokes if he wants to cough, drives fast if life without accidents is a bore. I didn’t want recriminations, accidents, dangerous living.

Aging gracefully is the watchword. Don’t wet your pants. Only nominally are your opinions of interest. Will the cost of eldercare exceed your assets? We want our oldsters mildly colorful, as if they’ve been around the block but picked up no social diseases. Despite that shrinking of the radius we live within, death isn’t scary, and it’s important to convey this to your survivors, young or old. Gracefully means not in rebellion but with salty serenity or stoical agnosticism.

Aging involves constructing a new persona, as one did in adolescence. We invent new attitudes, less quarrelsome, perhaps, even cultivating sympathy and patience. Tempos change. Naps intersperse the quietude of clean-slate days. You decide whether to mark Valentine’s Day, for instance, as well as holidays with children and grandchildren, and whether to keep paying attention to new movie stars or the phases of the sky. Do you become gentler, more accessible as old friends die, reaching out for new ones, or consolidate your affection in memories? There’s no longer such incitement to read or inform oneself competitively. How you want to be remembered is not germane, partly because you won’t be, or insofar as you are, those actions are indelibly recorded already from your behavior 30 years ago. If you “blotted your copybook,” as the English say, it’s done; too late now.

Aging is a skid, and as in driving, when you turn in the direction of the slide, don’t wrench the wheel toward being a youngster again. Old cars are comfy, though, and so is old age on a good day. I like old dogs, old houses, old trees, and so on. Old houses creak, old cars cough, and old dogs sleep a lot, and we love ’em. Marching music still turns me on, and phoebes twitching their tails, or a cardinal red as the Vatican variety, and Kermit the green frog. You say goodbye to tooth after tooth but still like to see a well-heaved fastball or pigskin, remember the Brooklyn and George Washington bridges, South Street Seaport, and Morton Street Pier. Old Saint Patrick’s Church south of Houston, the Cherry Lane Theatre, the Lion’s Head bar, the Sullivan building at Bleecker and Lafayette, the Dutch Reformed church on Second Avenue. Trumpet and sax I’ll miss, and saucy oysters, sweet corn.

And what do we know, for all our years? Not to quarrel gratuitously. God must not intend old age to be a breeze or He’d schedule it differently. Go reluctantly seems to be the message.

Old age is shrink-wrapped; it’s hard to get at things. I think of all the kitchen counters I’ve known, from Bennington to Bank Street. Or my friend Gene, a fireman’s son who thrived at Harvard, taught school in Turkey, but penniless in Miami with Parkinson’s, found a friendly doctor to assist him to an easy end. I remember a man my mother loved, Chauncey, who died alone because even at 80 she thought it improper to go to his apartment unchaperoned. Another friend, who grew marijuana for a living, so his check from the government is minimal, survives on the grudging charity of an ex-girlfriend who cracks the whip, making him shovel snow despite a heart condition. Love affairs I’m grateful for, and resting in an overstuffed chair. I preferred women to men as friends once I was out of college and the army. But aging is a banana peel. Don’t slip. Keep your arms out but not to snap a wrist. I sometimes tell people who help me with my footing that I’ll mention them to Saint Peter when I get to his gate. I like the notion of Saint Peter at a gate, having few serious regrets to prompt a reckoning. But being in actuality a pantheist, I like still more my alternative: dissolving organically into the elements that fuel all life in the soil, a stream, a lake and river, and then the swaying oceans, mother of us all. Even before Peter, there was an ambitious salamander.

“Applaud, my friends, the comedy is over,” as Beethoven was said to quoth on his deathbed. And if larder and shelter are secure, a good deal of life is comedic, even its stress. Silly as a goose or Chicken Little, we worry about our feathers before a party. TV ads warn us against “mouth breathing” or being “underinsured.” Will the IRS audit your deductions? How about “erectile dysfunction”? Will global warming veer a hurricane our way? When you’re aging and lose your balance, is it an early sign of stroke? Or did your heart stutter a bit? You deal with the genes you’ve got, cancerous or not. The human comedy has more traction as a label than its opposite would. Babies and superannuated folk in “a second childhood” are equally comic, though we try not to laugh at the latter. “Let me check out. I don’t want to be a burden,” an old guy might tell his offspring, refraining from complaining that he feels neglected because he knows how seldom he phoned his own parents in their infirmity. And what do we know, for all our years? Not to quarrel gratuitously. God must not intend old age to be a breeze or He’d schedule it differently. Go reluctantly seems to be the message.

Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t gamble as an avocation, we learn early on, not just from conventional hectoring but because lies require a chain of remembrance, which becomes a drag; and stealing turns dangerous. A candy store proprietor probably won’t call the cops, but the shop owner next door may want to nip you in the bud. Gambling eventually could involve a panicky response. To throw yourself on the mercy of a cop or casino owner offends one’s sense of selfhood. Drinking yourself silly, too, is not productive. If we’ve taken up killing things for fun with rocks or a .22, we also tend to outgrow that (I don’t squash bugs or bite the ears off chocolate bunnies), tennis or gardening being less destructive. Inevitably we’ll vegetate ourselves, before joining the vegetable kingdom through the roots of cemetery plantings.

We learn as children that if we hit other people, they will hit us; if we hurt their feelings, they’ll retaliate. Soon sympathy develops, for a friend or a hungry goldfish. That fellow feeling expands to classmates who aren’t buddies or a lonely local character. In school, teachers speak of kindness, and it registers. We’ll actually do favors by and by—having experienced inklings of empathy and developed into the adults we become. In old age as our energies shrivel, so do selfless impulses. We do feel twinges of compassion, but less so, more fatalism. That’s the way the world works. We swallow pills. One guy dies in his sleep, another suffers gruesomely in organs we don’t want to know about. It’s too late to be an idealist, we think. We’ll vote, but that’s it, or write a check. Yet you keep being the kind of person you were. The same balance of selfishness and charity, the same temperamental bent toward anxiety or equanimity. You’ve had your shot; you’ve shot your bolt. You’re on an angled glide path. Your shelf life has expired.

Vitiated of virility, we do smile, remembering romantic friendships or nebulous flirtations that almost gelled. There seems no niche for us in the current cultural splatter. Mainstream churches are in retreat as technological velocity and scientific perspectives alter our mentality. One soul’s salve seems gobbledygook to another. Democracy demands tolerance, however, but can we pray with that old sense of unison? Laws are passed to enforce basic ethics but not the commonality of values a civilization thrives on. Islam is wracked by schism, while Western Christendom seems flaccid in the face of current catastrophes, despite an inspiring pope. Where is God? People used to think they knew, and built cathedrals. Can you imagine building Chartres now? Yet I’m genuinely pleased when people tell me, all too rarely, they include me in their prayers. Quivery flesh, vulnerable senses, we’re here today, gone tomorrow.

Wax and wane. Did you burn the candle at both ends, or hide your light under a basket? The carousel swings up and down. Whatever goes around comes around. As to health, leave well enough alone. Heaven is on earth, Emerson believed. I’d love to be a passenger on trains again, ambling down the corridors toward the bubble car to chum with strangers while the scenery rises and falls. I’d rejoice in gazing out, crossing a continent with the random souls chance has thrown my way.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Edward Hoagland, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is the author of many books of essays, travel, and ficiton. His most recent novel is In the Country of the Blind.


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