Some years ago I read an appreciation and an obituary in the NY Times for Sir John Mortimer. (He died at 85 after a very full and productive life.) Mortimer, a British barrister, writer (e.g., the Rumpole of the Bailey books and television series), raconteur, and womanizer, was quoted as writing in his memoir The Summer of a Dormouse: A Year of Growing Old Disgracefully that ‘dying is a matter of slapstick and pratfalls. The aging process is not gradual and gentle. It rushes up, pushes you over and runs off laughing. No one should grow old who isn’t ready to appear ridiculous’.
I find something admirable about a frail, wheelchair-bound Mortimer continuing to attend cocktail parties into his eighties (he also persisted in being a prolific writer), despite his sense of embarrassment that he was reduced to a child’s-eye view of the party and a crotch-level view of the guests. In great pain, and hardly able to see, he even appeared in his slippers at the Windsor and Henley literary festivals, a few months before his death, to recount courtroom tales. Though his biographer notes that by then, if he deviated from his anecdotes, he would become silent, melancholy, and forgetful, saying, ‘it’s all so long ago’. Still, Mortimer was a man who refused to passively acquiesce in aging, wanting to energetically fill even his last failing years with activity – never allowing a consciousness of his body’s decline to dominate his life.
Despite my struggling hard to repress what will inescapably happen probably within the next five years or so, a model for aging relatively gracefully like Mortimer offers me hope for the future. I discovered another model in Diana Athill’s (a top British book editor of such writers as V. S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, and Jean Rhys) very frank, cooly and lucidly written prize- winning memoir, Somewhere Towards the End (W. W. Norton).
Athill, who is now ninety-eight, in her sixties felt she was ‘in hailing distance of middle age’, and it was only when she turned seventy, that she began to realize she was ‘old’. Her memoir is unsentimental and free of self-pity, rejecting the solace of religion, and taking a reasonable attitude towards death. She claims (and I believe her) to worry little about mortal- ity, but a great deal about ‘living with the body’s failures’.
However, though she mentions her dwindling energy, deafness, and difficulty walking, the tone is free of complaint. Of course, an old maxim that the English lived by is ‘mustn’t grumble’ – where you inform people everything is fine, and keep hidden, behind a cheery or stoical carapace, your physical ills and moments of despair. But that’s doesn’t fully capture who Athill is. She is someone who can write revealingly about her sex life including the people she has loved, and her lack of a maternal instinct, without ever becoming mawkish or losing her composure.
She also has a gift for conciseness, so when describing her passions and escapes – gardening, drawing, and reading and writing books – she finds, for example, gardening an ‘absorbing occupation’ where ‘you become what you are doing, and are given a wonderful release from consciousness of self’. Athill also views her recent writing as no longer fueled by emotional need, as it was in the past, but by an interest in the subject – finding it on completion, ‘not just gratifying, but absolutely delicious’. As a retired academic turned writer, I just love the sound of that last word – I fully understand her feelings of satisfaction about the whole process of writing. I love turning what I think, see and feel into sentences and paragraphs, culminating in an essay that at times can feel fully realized.
Athill is without illusions about aging: ‘There’s no denying that moving through advanced old age is a downhill journey’. But she is not a woman to let angst take over, and though there is no way she feels one can end a book about aging with ‘a bang’, she stresses she doesn’t have to conclude it with a ‘whimper’. She views most lives as a matter of ups and downs – of shifts of mood and fortune – but she herself has now returned to the ‘comfortable warmth’ of her early years.
I love the honesty, wit and unpretentious intelligence of Athill’s memoir. There is something so English about her refusal to whine about what age does to the body, and her willingness to confront the imminence of death, ostensibly without fear. It’s far from my way of dealing with mortality. I just can’t emulate the approach to aging that she and John Mortimer take. My temperament is too different. But I would love to be able to age with some semblance of their grace.
I am now a white bearded, balding, a touch bent, 76-year-old with black circles under my eyes, and a recently inserted pacemaker. I work out every day in the gym – enduring the endless boredom of getting on an exercise bike. That tedium is relieved only by reading The Times and getting obsessed with the highs and lows of the Presidential primaries, which can turn suddenly comic in an ominous, even nightmarish fashion. I feel only anguish contemplating a future with a demagogic entertainer like Trump or a vile reactionary like Cruz as possible Presidents.
I not only dutifully work out, but also walk a few miles every day through a medley of ever changing city neighborhoods; try, with some success, to eat healthy foods whose fat and sugar content is minimal; and take a number of prescribed pills like Benicar, Metformin, and Pravastatin to help insure what I know isn’t going to be an eternal life.
Nobody triumphs over the ravages of time. I suffer some days from nagging aches and pains in my legs and back when I walk, and especially when I am forced to stand in one place – partially a result of the neuropathy brought on by my Diabetes 2, and an indirect effect of the statins I take. But so far I’m neither disabled nor have suffered from a life-threatening illness. In short, I’m relatively healthy, my memory is intact, and I can still write personal and political essays and film reviews, and complete another edition of my film and politics book.
Most of my friends are as old as or older than I am. A number have died, Of the many who remain, some have dealt with disabling illnesses like Parkinson’s and kidney failure and all of them have faced at different times medical problems large (heart bypass, prostate and esophageal cancer) and small (bad teeth and cataracts). But most of them have handled aging with some dignity, and continue to be energetic and productive.
What is most disturbing is that too much of talk with these friends is given over to exchanges about the medications we take and the various ailments we endure. We all take our temperature too often, and I become angry with myself when I find myself in yet another obsessive discussion of our symptoms and physical deterioration.
I myself am not sanguine about the future, especially when I watch women and men in their eighties stumble along on their walkers with their day’s shopping, or being pushed in their wheel chairs by exploited, often resentful home care workers. I know I’m looking at the more dismal moments of old age. But I recognize that a number of us are destined to finish up our allotted time in that manner or even worse.
Looking for a fresh perspective on aging I picked up a book, The Art of Aging: A Doctor’s Prescription for Well-Being by Sherwin B. Nuland, who was a professor of surgery at Yale University’s Medical School. Nuland, who died in 2014, won the National Book Award for his penetrating How We Die. In The Art of Aging he explores the effects of getting older on our mind, body and relationships. Nuland is committed to the idea that there is an art to aging, and sensibly feels that there are things we can do to be more contented with our old age. He writes that what we need for healthy aging is to work on physical fitness, hold on to close relationships that give us a sense of connectedness, and use our creativity. And ‘each of the three requires work; each of the three brings immense rewards’.
I can’t say that Nuland’s book offers much that is revelatory, though it’s his upbeat, often sentimental tone that bothers me more than his analysis. I am someone who is connected to many people, is productive and remains passionate about many things. Still, I am far from buoyant. I remain too conscious of the years passing, and check the obits to see which writer, actor, or director whose work has personal meaning for me has just died. I’m saddened by their deaths, but grateful that I’m still alive. And though I don’t live with too many regrets, I know it’s too late to both remedy all my past wrongheaded decisions, and to accomplish things that are now far beyond my powers.
Nuland’s prescriptions for well-being may be reasonable but I prefer to gain insight into aging from more emotionally penetrating novelists rather than levelheaded doctors. In one of his last novels, Everyman, Philip Roth writes that his nameless aging, dying protagonist views himself as ‘now nothing, nothing but a motionless cipher angrily awaiting the blessing of an eradication that was absolute’. Obviously, I haven’t yet reached that state of emotional extremity, but I find when thinking about aging that being sane and balanced feels inadequate. Yes, it keeps us from curling up in a corner like a fetus, but the fear and despair surrounding aging are always present and can’t be evaded. They must be acknowledged. That’s what real sanity is – a consciousness of the abyss that we must live with daily as we age, and that still allows us to be actively engaged with life. In his last story, The Full Glass, John Updike has his eighty-year-old narrator, who is facing death, look at himself, and write: ‘If I can read this strange old guy’s mind aright, he’s drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned’.
By Leonard Quart