In less than two weeks, I will turn eighty. It feels huge. When I was young, no one I knew lived that long. My father died at the age of forty-three when I was four; my mother lived to be seventy, and my stepfather seventy-three. I encountered my first eighty-year-old several decades ago, a relative of a relative, a silent old man sitting unmoving in a chair, and I was mesmerized by the simple fact of his existence.
So my feelings about this birthday are mixed. I’m deeply grateful to have been allowed so many years and experiences on this beautiful planet, though sometimes it feels like what we used to call in grammar school “a bit of a swizz.” In other words, I have stolen time.
The world is full of stories about the joys of old age, how you can keep yourself healthy, happy and occupied while—at least if you follow the inspirational posts on Facebook—doing fifty pull-ups a day or bending your feet behind your neck during a yoga class. Also, you acquire wisdom and perhaps profound self-knowledge, and can tell people who annoy you to fuck off (I have never understood why this was considered a plus). But, as W.H. Auden once said,
“Ah, let not time deceive you
You cannot conquer time
The glacier knocks in the cupboard
The desert yawns in the bed,
And the crack in the teacup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.”
At some point, even if you exercise daily and dutifully eat your vegetables, your knees will begin to crack, or your back to ache. Your intestines will betray you. You’ll get tired. But Auden also said something else:
“Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique
Worships language, and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives.”
Which is obviously true for him, as his words are in my mind at this moment, and perhaps in yours as I share them. People who meditate know there’s a world outside time. So do artists. And there are transcendent moments most of us experience now and then. Perhaps it’s a painting we gazed at for long minutes, a hallucinatory moment created by an actor onstage, hearing Leonard Cohen singing Hallelujah, or Suzanna and the Countess joining voices for “Che soave zefiretto” in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
The afternoon I met photographer David McClintock at his home in Arden, Delaware, provided such an experience. Pete Fisher, a musician friend of mine knew David’s wife Judith Tay, also a musician, and as they chatted about music seated opposite each other on the windowsill, David and I talked. He told me he was dying of cancer, and I asked if he was afraid. He had pills for that, he responded,
“If I didn’t I’d just sit here all day and cry.”
He told me about a fellow cancer patient with whom he’d bonded and how lonely he’d felt when that man died. Then he pulled up some of his work on the computer to share with me. The images were lovely, thoughtful, intriguing. But the one I most remember is of a beach in New Jersey, crowded, but not crammed, just full of people. Some lay on towels, some paddled in the waves. Children played on the sand. David pointed out that the picture had been taken some decades earlier, perhaps as early as the 1970s or 1980s. I don’t remember exactly. If he returned to the same place now and took a photo, he said, it would be completely different. It might be more built up; the people would certainly be heavier. But this image had been captured at exactly the right time, and what he particularly liked about it was that everyone on the beach had been caught by his camera doing exactly what he or she should be doing—bending to dry a leg, tossing a ball, running, or in total repose. Later, I found a Nabokov quote about his childhood that seemed to fit exactly:
“Everything is as it should be. Nothing will ever change. Nobody will ever die.”
David Anthony McClintock, who died in 2008, had preserved that moment on the beach in time. And I can’t help feeling that that particular afternoon, with Judith and Peter talking quietly by the window, me and David at the computer, is still gleaming silently somewhere.
I am a touch closer to 90 now than to 80 and it seems impossible. So much older than my parents were when they died. I love this verse of a Tibetan Buddhist song called Seven Delights (it’s the sixth):
When it’s time to leave this body, this illusionary tangle
Don’t cause yourself anxiety and grief;
The thing that you should train in and clear up for yourself
There’s no such thing as dying to be done
It’s just clear light the mother, and child clear light uniting,
When mind forsakes the body, sheer delight!
Beautifully said. I turned 70 two weeks ago and I’ve had some of the same musings. My mother died at 49, my father at 64 and my sister 22 days after her 70th birthday. So now my goal is to live until May 8. There will be a big celebration here!!!
Juliet – Turning 80 is not so bad. We have a lifetime’s worth of memories, happy and sad and every day is a bonus. Last weekend I attended a memorial service for my friend Jecca, who starting a home nursing service for the terminally in our local town as her retirement project. I met her through her bereavement group and we painted in the same weekly art class. She suffered ill health in the last few years of her life but was totally uncomplaining, always positive, with a naughty sense of humour. The town now has a charity shop, Campden Home Nursing, and a day hospice called Jecca’s House, in her honour. She died in 2020, during the pandemic so only 12 people were allowed at her funeral, hence the memorial service this year. She’s my inspiration for how to live in one’s eighties. Today I am about to go and tweak my son’s Japanese garden as the gardening club come this afternoon, with a collection for the Ukrainian appeal. How I wish we could meet! Love and hugs, Judy
From Annie Dillard’s “The Maytrees”
“When he knew he would die, he found it first impossible, then sad, to near the falls’ lip, to yield to the ripping loss of the colored world and himself in it.”
Beautiful. Thank you.
Welcome to the 80s! My experience with age is quite the opposite from yours. My own family is long-lived; my mother died at age 89 and her siblings (she was the youngest of 8) were all in their 70s and 80s. My grandmother also died at age 89. So I was surrounded by old folks. The catch being this: Grandmother, mother, and most of her siblings had dementia and lived for years with it. Mother was nine years in a nursing home. So my understanding of old age for my family is that I should prepare for that time. I carefully chose long term insurance to make certain that when the “curse” as we called it hit me, I would be surrounded by beauty and good food. But here I am, at 82 with a spouse who is dealing with aphasia and short term memory issues. I told him he couldn’t have chosen a better partner, or at least a more experienced one.
But as for us, Juliet, how hard we would have laughed if back in 1972 when we were grad students, someone would have said that we’d still be in touch in our 80s!!!