Age is opportunity no less,
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away,
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Morituri Salutamus
In his book Promises to Keep: Thoughts in Old Age, distinguished English academic Richard Hoggart, 92 at the time, wrote most affectingly about the phenomenon of ageing.
I go for a short, late afternoon walk along pavements crowded with schoolchildren of various ages heading for home, most of them continuously laughing and joshing. I do not envy them. It was lovely to be young; only a curmudgeon would begrudge them that part of life. A slight regret and one kept well in check is all I register. I remember that time warmly and try to imagine how they see me now, a slow old man with a stick.
Some make way for me politely. Others look at me as at one from another planet, at which they can never conceive themselves ever arriving. A few look at me as though I am a bit of a nuisance, slowing things down. Hardly any will see me as a survivor because that would link them emotionally with one who was once their age but now occupies a point in space and time towards which they do not yet see themselves slowly moving.
Tolstoy spoke for many when he noted to his diary that ‘old age is the most unexpected of all things that can happen to a man’. It steals up like a burglar in stockinged feet, but with a cosh. Some of us take the pension but ignore the indicated age and suddenly realise, perhaps at 80, that we have become old, as my wife and I did.
And commenting on the pleasure that memories of children and grandchildren bring in age, he sounds a poignant note.
Among the memories (of grandchildren) that stay most firmly in our minds is that of the oldest turning to his mother, at about four, and asking: “Shall I be happy all the days?” Almost heartbreaking. It made her want to hold him tight forever.
Shortly before my mother withdrew into the shady place she inhabited up to her death in 2008, she expressed Tolstoy’s surprise when contemplating the onset of age. Anger and frustration were her principal reactions to having been ambushed by the years. Still entirely on the ball at that point, she talked of an interior self that had arrested at around age 30 but that was now trapped within a body that refused to do her bidding.
Within a few weeks of the conversation in which she expressed her exasperation, she experienced the first of a series of transient ischaemic attacks, or TIAs. These small strokes forced her further and further into that hinterland of consciousness that those who are past the first oddly liberating stages of middle age begin to contemplate increasingly.
Always one to avoid the physical excesses of sport (whilst ready enough to exercise strenuously enough if some extrinsic gain was the goal – as in my current gym attendance), beyond some arthritis, I’ve not become victim to crumbling cartilages, dodgy hip joints or an impacting spine. And although physically I do have to do a great deal more to achieve a good deal less, that interior 40-year-old is maintaining fairly convincing control of the mental and physical extremities. Thus far, the aftermath of sarcoidosis and prostate cancer has wreaked more psychological than material damage and – pro tem at least – I maintain an uneasy (and sometimes violently breached) truce with the demons that whisper of oncoming dereliction, decay and dying*.
Old age, Bette Davis declared, is no place for sissies. With three young children, two grown-up offspring, two grandchildren and a partner younger than myself, my investment in life is substantial. I see old age, physical infirmities notwithstanding, as a further rite of passage no less rich and challenging than what has gone before and what prevails now. If at 92 I can reflect with some of the acuteness of perception and write with the passion that clearly still drove Richard Hoggart at that advanced age then I’ll lean on my cherrywood walking stick and cup my ear and speak from the vital centre that so evidently can prevail.
*Anxiety as a condition – particularly health anxiety – is a topic for separate consideration at some point.
Sadly, my mum’s sustained vigour in age was taken from her and she lingered ignominiously for too long. Shortly before her death, I wrote a poem about an ageing process deprived of choice.
Each morning they organise your bones
into the wheelchair, stack you leaning
out of kilter. Thus I find you, wall-eyed,
feather pulse and mouth ajar. This is
a stillness you are learning as silence
silts up your blood. I name you: ‘Mum’.
I call, quietly at first, as if this were
only sleep and you might resent the passage
interrupted. But your shade is walking
a broken road on the far side of dreams.
I keep my coat on, lean in the doorway,
breathing in the alkalines and salts
that are your presence in this world.
Beyond, through narrow windows, rain
drifts like smoke. The trees shift
their high shoulders, hefting their leaves
like heroes. I can see the lift and fall
of their evergreen breath, the slow,
dispassionate pulse. Such senseless beauty,
propping up the sky as if there were no
tides turning or falling stars, no ashes to dust,
no time at all. You speak – a half-word,
cracked in the middle. Syllables drift
like fumes. Somewhere in that steam
of meaning, the filaments of memory:
the horn’s tip of a lover’s moon,
a song’s dust, the eye’s tail catching,
not quite catching, doorway phantoms,
window ghosts. Grief crosses my mind:
its hydrogen release – from local pain
to lachrymae rerum, all in one ball
of fire. It would be a simple thing
to self-cauterise, here against the lintel,
watching not the rise and fall of your
fish-breath, your insect pulse, but
the immortal trees beyond. Too easy;
but death looked in and turned away,
indifferent, and now it’s down to me,
the blood-bearer, to wish away your life
for you. The house ticks and hums.
A voice calls out, thin and querulous;
another coughs. I turn down your light.
There, against the window, dusk outside,
you are becoming your shadow
cast against the shifting of the trees.