The Evening of Life   /   Fall 2018   /    Thematic: The Evening of Life

Being There

Wilfred M. McClay

A Spanish Chestnut Tree Struck by Lightning (detail), nineteenth century, by John Sell Cotman (1782–1842); © Agnew’s London/ Bridgeman Images.

Rethink your first impressions the next time you sit next to a Little Old Lady.

The compulsive jokiness with which so many modern Americans deflect the subject of aging can get pretty tiresome. But perhaps it’s not the worst way to handle the matter. At least one avoids the undignified excesses of self-pity and despair by making light of an admittedly unwelcome condition, even while implicitly confessing one’s susceptibility to an all-too-human vanity. That was the approach taken by the great comedian Jack Benny, whose trademark shtick included the comic pretense that he was perpetually thirty-nine. There was irony built into the joke, a self-mockery that was at least honest enough to acknowledge itself. Laughing at Jack Benny, we were also laughing at ourselves; he was so much like us, merely offering up a silly and exaggerated version of what so many of us are tempted to do.

But even great comedy has its limits. A jokey evasion is still an evasion, one that tries not only to hide a great deal of anxiety but also to distract us from seeking the deeper meanings in our experience. A joke may be a civilized way of coping, but it is not an answer to much of anything, and it may even be a veiled way of confessing to the dread that there are no answers to be had. “I’m not afraid of death,” said Woody Allen, “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” A very funny line, but what makes it so funny is the way it confirms the overwhelming force of the very fear it claims to deny.

Yet there is a grain of wisdom to be found in the ironic reversal these jokes perform. It points back to a deep and persistent insight of our civilization: the teaching that the structure of human growth is itself paradoxical, a startling play in which opposites trade places, and the loss of something ordinary becomes the path to the acquisition of something higher and rarer. “My power is made perfect in weakness,” St. Paul declared, in perhaps the quintessential formulation of the paradox; but the insight is not exclusive to Christianity. In writers from Homer to Sophocles to Milton, blindness leads to the profounder form of vision. Loss is gain, diminution is increase, woundedness produces strength, disability opens the door to extraordinary ability, wisdom is shown as foolishness and foolishness as wisdom. Holding too tightly to a proximate good can block our way to the appropriation of something far better. And all too often it takes being completely knocked off our pins, by something we never saw coming, and never would have wished for, to get us to embrace that something better.

There are a multitude of lessons to be learned from the emergence of this unexpected pattern. Such lessons are particularly apropos for an age in which the steady advance of the sovereign human will, embodied in the mastery of nature by medical science, seems to be yielding a harvest of dismaying barrenness: anxiety, loneliness, purposelessness, anomie. One of the lessons is that, contra Woody Allen, we need to be there for the whole journey. Disembodiment and distraction during the latter parts will not do the job. Certain subtle and almost inexpressible epiphanies come to us with the advance of age, but you have to pay attention if you are to catch them. Let me point out one such epiphany. I won’t try to give it a name, since it is easier to describe than to formulate or define.

The Past Immanent in the Present

Imagine yourself as a young man, perhaps in late adolescence or early adulthood. In the course of events—perhaps sitting in your seat on an airplane—you meet a little old lady. At least that is how you unreflectively categorize her, both when you meet her and when you describe her later to your friends. Since you are (obviously) a bit callow, it doesn’t cross your mind to think that that characterization might be a bit slighting or callous. After all, you mean no harm. But even if your perception of her is kindly, it is also casually reductive. Someone else might have noticed that she is a lively conversationalist, and is impeccably dressed and coiffed, with perfectly manicured nails, but none of that registers with you. Instead, you mainly see her as someone standing at a certain remove from you, as a second-grader sees his teacher, across a continental divide of age, as having long ago arrived at that great gray stage of human life in which the imperatives of youth, the only imperatives you really understand, are as distant from her as the microchip is from the Middle Ages.

Needless to say, this little scenario is all going to look quite different to her. She undoubtedly doesn’t think of herself as a Little Old Lady, if for no other reason than that no one wants to be reduced to a stereotype. Perhaps she doesn’t like to be reminded of her age, doesn’t feel that she is all that “old,” or, for that matter, isn’t little, and doesn’t feel much like a lady at the moment. Whatever the specific reason, she objects above all to the one-dimensional reductionism.

Now instead imagine yourself as a male contemporary of that same woman, someone she had known years before, perhaps in another place, but had rarely or never seen in the intervening years. Let’s say that you two were college friends, and you bump into one another at a reunion event. You sit down to have a cup of coffee and talk. And you proceed not only to talk, running through the usual updates of marriage, children, careers, relocations, medical problems, etc., but to look carefully at one another as you do. What are you looking for? What do you see? What impressions flow into your mind in silent counterpoint to the words coming out of your mouth?

Of course, you look for and see many things. But first of all, you search for the face of the person you used to know, as it appears in the face of the person who now sits before you. And once that face of the younger person emerges in a way visible to you, you cannot unsee it; you cannot see her today in any other way, without also incorporating that younger person, without that almost ghostly presence inhering in the sight. You come into possession of a kind of dual vision. You look in her face and see not only the face she has now but also the face she had then, even if it only peeks out in fleeting moments, or shows itself in certain tics and mannerisms that have endured. You experience her as a life in motion.

You might have a variety of reactions to the changes that have occurred over the years—the human body being what it is, the changes will generally look like wear and tear, at best—but what can’t be helped is that, in some sense, both people are alive to you at that moment. The person you used to know is still alive somewhere in there. You can detect that spark, and hear that distant melody. You can see what the young man is incapable of seeing: that this is no mere little old lady. In the house of her soul are many mansions; as the widowed governess Anna tells the young lovers in The King and I, she knows “how it feels to have wings on your heels, and to fly down the street in a trance.” Not that she is ever likely to do that again. But in some sense, she never ceased to be what she was, in the process of becoming what she is now.

That is the epiphany, then. It is the understanding, not only as an abstract idea but as a living reality, that a human person is a historical being, in whom the past remains immanent in the present, and whom the wear and tear of time enhances rather than diminishes. We rarely are presented with exactly the right circumstances to gain this insight, although occasions such as reunions are perfect places for them to occur; and of course you can get an intimation of it from family photo albums and videos in which you glimpse what your now-wizened grandparents looked like when they were twentysomethings and newly married.

But once one has gained the insight, one can begin to generalize. It is not just this one person who can be seen and understood doubly. We can train the insight onto the faces of others, even others we do not know. Even little old women or men on airplanes. It becomes a kind of solitary parlor game. We can look at their faces, and guess what they might have looked like if we had known them when they were young. Or we can look at the faces of the young, and imagine them as they might appear someday when they have grown old.

Leaf, Blossom, or Bole?

One of the great poems about aging, William Butler Yeats’s “Among School Children,” describes something very similar to this process of extrapolation, and features a similar epiphany. The author is visiting a classroom full of industrious children and finds himself being stared at by them as “a sixty-year-old smiling public man”—a stereotypical little old man, as it were. But like the young man on the airplane, those little kids have no idea of what is going on beneath that bland exterior. His mind is racing. He is thinking passionate thoughts about a woman he loves, how they bonded over her recounting of a wound she had suffered in childhood—and then he looks at the children in the class and wonders “if she stood so at that age,” and realizes, with a start, that any one of these girls might be having similar experiences, and might eventually grow up to be like her. “And thereupon,” he exclaims, “my heart is driven wild: / She stands before me as a living child.”

But he does not stop there. He then he reflects on his beloved’s once beautiful but now-transformed face, fifty or more years older than that of these schoolgirls, “Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind / And took a mess of shadows for its meat.” Such a dismaying thought then leads him to wonder whether it is worth it all, even to be born. After all, what mother would consent even to give birth to a child in the first place, were she to know in advance that her once perfect child would end up looking like this? Or like him for that matter,a mere “scarecrow” of a man at sixty years?

Yeats was posing one of the core questions about aging. How can the mounting debilities of old age—the loss of beauty, of mobility, of strength, of mental acuity, of sexual charm, and so many other losses—be understood as anything more than the terrible sadness and pity that attaches to all human flesh, once it passes a certain marker? And like all questions of aging, it quickly becomes a question about the value of life itself. Why bring new life into the world at all, why endure and strive and struggle, if that new life is destined for failure and disappointment in maturity, and then, cut by cut, for an ignominious end, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything?

Yeats does not provide an explicit answer. Instead, he offers the metaphorical lineaments of one in the form of a question posed as the poem concludes:

O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

I think the question answers itself. The chestnut tree is all three of these things, and many others besides. Its organic life is a continuous succession of stages, and while one or another stage may be the most prized by us—say, the blossom—none exist apart from the others. The human person, in his or her completeness, is not one stage or another, but all of them together, time past and time present containing time future.

Hence the dilemma we face when we have to choose a photograph to accompany an obituary, our usual way of trying to sum up a life. Do we pick the blossoming young graduate, the newly commissioned officer, the bride or groom—a picture of someone full of promise, but whom no one reading the newspaper will recognize? Or do we choose the robust thirty-nine-year old, the mature fifty-year-old, or the seventy-yearold, the little old man whose picture at least a few in the community will recognize when they see it? Which best represents him in his wholeness?

Surprised by Joy

I faced this dilemma myself a number of years ago when I had to provide the newspapers with an obituary photograph of my recently deceased mother. In the end, I was prevailed upon by family members to provide a youthful photo, and they probably were right to insist upon that. An obituary is not the moment to challenge social conventions. But if I’d had my druthers, I would have chosen a photo from her old age. To explain why is a useful way to go more deeply into the question that animates this essay: How can the latter stages of life be a time of crucial illumination, in which loss becomes gain and disability becomes strength?

Early in my days as a graduate student in history at Johns Hopkins, I mentioned to my mother that I’d just read a biography of H.L. Mencken, the irreverent and merciless editor and critic known as the “Sage of Baltimore.” I hadn’t previously known that Mencken had suffered a stroke while still in his prime and spent his last years unable to write or read and only barely able to speak—all of which must have been, for him, like being a shark suddenly stripped of its teeth. I remarked that this particular biographer had almost nothing to say about that part of Mencken’s life—how Mencken adapted, if he did, to his disability, and more generally how it all affected him. Did it do anything to change his outlook, cause him to moderate his tone, rethink his slashing critical style? That wasn’t addressed at all. It was as if, for all practical purposes, Mencken’s life was deemed to be over when he had a stroke.

My mother responded, somewhat out of the blue, that she wanted me to know that if she ever found herself in a condition like that which befell Mencken, she hoped I would do nothing to prolong her life, because a life lived that way would not be worth living. It was a slightly chilling statement, but she absolutely meant it. Not that she was a social Darwinist, or thought the weak and infirm should be allowed to perish. She was always generous and warm-hearted with people, particularly those in her inner circle—family and friends of family.

But she was a mathematician, who believed in being unflinchingly honest about things that other people are willing to blur, and her statement, which she made with a mathematician’s crisp rationality, was completely consistent with her view of life. She was saying that, absent a certain “quality of life,” there was no point in living. There was certainly no reason that we, the healthy, should go to great lengths to support and extend the lives of those who were severely impaired. And to be fair, I think her view at that time was only a more honest expression of sentiments that are held by many, maybe even most, modern Americans, though rarely expressed with the honesty and directness she showed that day. We assume that we know what it is that we want, and need, in life, and that we must be the masters of our own faculties to achieve it.

But it was only a couple of years later that she herself suffered a massive, nearly fatal stroke which, once she emerged from a month-long coma, left her with an enormous loss of cognitive function, including the ability to speak, write, or read. I remember a particular moment, as she was returning to consciousness, when the enormity of what had happened seemed suddenly to bear down upon her. She was hit with a realization of the immeasurable gulf that now separated her, forever, from the person she had been—the highly verbal, vivacious, and independent-minded mathematician, reader, teacher, mother, puzzle solver, bridge player, and conversationalist. All that she was most proud of in herself was gone. That self was now dead. And at that moment she cried, with the deepest, most grief-laden, most soul-wrenching sobs and moans I’ve ever heard in my life.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. After a period of rehabilitation, she was able to return home. Eventually she was even able to live on her own, with significant assistance with meal preparation and housecleaning. She was able to live a  reasonably satisfying life in the house she loved. True, many things were missing, and she was often lonely. Perhaps the greatest disappointment was the loss of the company of so many of her friends, who found it so hard to be around her in her changed condition, and just never visited. Her whole world had contracted to a handful of people, most of them immediate family members, chiefly my sister, my wife, my children, and me.

Someone writing her biography might, like Mencken’s biographer, have concluded that there was nothing to say about those years, that her life was effectively over. Something closer to the opposite was true. An inner development took place that made her a far deeper, warmer, more affectionate, more grateful, and more generous person than I had ever known her to be. It is always a mystery why some people respond to adversity by closing themselves off, while others respond by opening their hearts. She did the latter. In some respects, we became closer than we had ever been. Apart from the ability to express her thoughts readily, she had lost very little of her intellectual capacity, and by working together we found a hundred different ways of getting around the barriers. Left with a small functional vocabulary, she could rarely string words together into sentences, but no human being has ever done more with few words or been able to express more intricate shades of meaning simply by intoning the same words differently. She even had the ability to make light of her own verbal habits, such as her use of an impatient “OK!” to signal, in effect, that it was time to move on to another subject. And I think it pleased her that we all picked up her mannerisms. She understood that our use of them was not mockery or condescension but a form of loving communion.

Most surprisingly, my mother proved to be a superb grandmother to my two children, whom she loved without reservation, and who loved her the same way in return. My children always saw past her disability and recognized her depth of character—and admired her all the more. What they couldn’t possibly know is how much they did to help make life worth living for her. If she ever doubted her capacity to be a first-rate grandmother, and I know that she did at times, the kids dispelled her concerns with their easy, natural way of being with her.

During her last years, when a series of additional strokes made it impossible for her to live on her own, my mother came to live with me and my family in Tennessee. We knew we couldn’t put her in a nursing home. She had to be with her own. It wasn’t always easy, of course, and while I won’t dwell on the details, I won’t pretend that it wasn’t a strain. But there are so many memories of those years that we treasure—above all, the day-in-and-day-out experience of my mother’s unbowed spirit, which inspired and awed us all. She made me think often of a different verse by Yeats, from “Sailing to Byzantium”:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress…

She clapped and sang—and did so every single day, whether her body wanted to cooperate or not. And though she had every reason to be bitter, she wasn’t. Her song was joyful, gracious, grateful—and infectious. She learned to take infinite pleasure in the simplest of things—the antics of our dogs, the taste of good food, the sound of the piano, the busy birds at the feeder, the turning of the leaves, the whisper of the wind in the trees—and to see these things as the immense gifts they are. Being around her, seeing the joy she took in these things, you couldn’t help but feel lifted out of ordinary concerns and worries, into something much closer to the whole truth about our miraculous world. It took a long time to adjust to the silence in the house when she was gone.

When we talk about “the quality of life,” we need to think more carefully about what we mean. By most people’s standards, the last twenty years of my mother’s life were like the last years of Mencken’s—a dark, sad time spent waiting for the curtain  to fall on a drama that was essentially over. But those of us who were privileged to know her in those years know better. Her stroke was not only an end, but also a beginning. And that is true of every one of life’s junctures, no matter how painful or frightening or sad it may seem when we go through it.

What does one woman’s story prove? Of the many possible lessons, surely this one would be at the top of the list: that our drive for mastery of the terms of our existence, as heroic and noble as its achievements have been, may also become the enemy of our souls. Aging is not a problem to be solved, my mother taught us. It is a meaning to be lived out.