The last few weeks were suffused with a slowly-growing sense of dread. Being eighty years old, it seemed, would mark the beginning of a new reality, one dominated by a powerful awareness of time and its limits. When I sat down to write, as I often do, would a concern with the arrangement of words into sentences and paragraphs be subsumed by a feeling of urgency and the question of whether to abandon the chronic, time-consuming pursuit of le mot juste? Already, the words rise to the surface of the mind with less alacrity, a thickness seems to impede the flow of ideas from murky origin to the luminence of inspiration. Names and dates hide like mischievous children, oblivious to the panic of those searching for them.
My great-grandfather lived to be 106. His daughter, my maternal grandmother, lived to be 103. My grandfather on my father’s side lived to be 101. But my memories of them don’t exactly inspire a fervid desire for such venerability. My great-grandfather, who was born before the Civil War and died as the country was waging its ill-conceivred war in Vietnam, was a spectral presence in my grandmother’s house for many years and the gruffness of his infrequent speech frightened my brother and I when we were young. My grandmother, who was a kind, gentle woman, suffered from blindness and age-related dementia, what we then called senility. My grandfather was afflicted by arthritis that severely deformed his body and must have caused him equally severe pain, although he was a stoical man and would never be heard complaining about anything, much less his own discomforts.
When I call up memories of these centenarians, am I calling up images of my own future? Or will I die like my father, at 84, his body and mind ravaged by Parkinson’s disease? I traveled from California, where I live, to Iowa, where he lived his entire life, to celebrate his 80th birthday. The event took place in the dining room of the nursing home where he had lived, against his will, for the past year. Against his will because he was a strong, fiercely independent man whose life was an embodiment of self-reliance, but who had reached the point where he couldn’t perform the basic functions of life—getting in and out of bed, getting dressed, using the bathroom—without help. As his illness grew worse he relied on my mother for this help, but it was jeopardizing her own physical well-being, and when she badly wrenched her back getting him out of bed the nursing home he dreaded opened its doors like a bad dream and beckoned him in.
My daughter and my six-month old granddaughter were among the relatives, old friends and neighbors, and fellow nursing home denizens who sang a ragged but enthusiastic “Happy Birthday” to him. He smiled and nodded but there was a kind of vacancy in his eyes, as if his mind had already abandoned the world and his body was waiting to follow. He believed in hard work, honesty and fairness in dealings with other people, and an acceptance of one’s fate. Like his own father, he hated complaint and refused to indulge in it. But I wonder how he felt, entering his ninth decade after a life of working hard to achieve a modest success and having nothing to look forward to but the advance of disease and its attendant miseries.
That granddaughter is now a young woman, attractive and ambitious, and a distinct pleasure at this stage in life is watching her and my other granddchildren come of age and embark upon a journey that
that I hope is marked with pleasure and contentment although I know that almost every life suffers jolts of sorrow and discontent. I even have a great-granddaughter now, one I’ve never seen, but I hope that when we meet she won’t see a gruff, gaunt old man and be afraid.
My wife says, in a half-joking manner, that I have ten years left. That sounds about right, actually; I’ve already passed the age of average life expectancy and I could regard these coming years as bonuses for good habits like not smoking or drinking or taking recreational drugs, all activities I once engaged in, sometimes to excess. For the most part I eat healthy food, I exercise, I do the daily crossword puzzle and Wordle and seek other mental stimulants that will supposedly delay the inevitable calcification of the brain, which is still active enough to keep me awake some nights with annoyingly obsessive thoughts about nothing of special importance, just the little problems that infect one’s daily routines, like a dripping faucet or a faulty light switch. Or the big problems I can do almost nothing about, like wars and famines and politicians who aspire to be demagogues.
Despite everything, though, I’m looking forward to this journey into the octogenarian wilderness, because the alternative is to pull the blankets over my head and wait for the end. No, if I’ve learned any lesson from eighty years on the planet, it’s that meeting things head-on is almost always better than avoidance. It’s not a lesson that I’ve always heeded, being in a big hurry to get through the beginning of life, but I want to look at the end of it as a time to reflect on some things that matter, to make sense of things that have resisted my modest ability to call up words and arrange them into sentences and paragraphs that make one say, “Aha, now I see it.”