Having recently expressed my affection for Louis Begley’s books online, I looked up again a clipping of an Opinion piece he wrote for The New York Times Sunday Review two years ago. I had saved it initially because I thought it beautifully and truthfully written. Coming across it again last fall, I transferred it to a folder of ideas for this blog.
However, I haven’t used it until now because it is extremely sad. But it is about the “dealing with the rest of it” which is the second half of the subtitle to this blog. So perhaps, in the interests of balance, it’s time. I’ve shortened what follows a bit, but not by much.
Age and Its Awful Discontents
by Louis Begley
Published March 17, 2012
My mother died in 2004, two days short of her 94th birthday, and 40 years and two months to the day after the death of my father. He died at 65; for the preceding four or five years he had been in poor health.
My mother and I lived through the German occupation in Poland; my physician father, having been evacuated with the staff of the local hospital by the retreating Soviet army, spent the remaining war years in Samarkand. Left to fend for ourselves, my mother and I became unimaginably close; our survival depended on that symbiotic relationship. All three of us — I had no brothers or sisters — arrived in the United States in March 1947, and once here I began to keep her at arm’s length. Especially during her long widowhood, I feared that unimpeded she would invade my life, the life she had saved. I remained a dutiful son, watching over her needs, but was at first unwilling and later unable to be tender.
My abhorrence of the ravages and suffering inflicted on the body by age and illness, which predates my mother’s decline in her last years, is no doubt linked to there being no examples of a happy old age in my family. The grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins who might have furnished them all met violent deaths in World War II.
Unsurprisingly, dread of the games time plays with us has been a drumbeat in my novels. Thus, arms akimbo, majestic and naked, standing before a glass, Charlie Swan the gay demiurge of “As Max Saw It” [one of Begley’s books], illustrates for the younger narrator on his body the physiology of aging: misrule of hair, puckered brown bags under the eyes, warts like weeds on his chest, belly, back and legs, dry skin that peels leaving a fine white snow of dandruff. Listening to him, the younger man is reminded of his own father in a hospital, permanently catheterized, other tubes conducting liquids to his body hooked up to machines that surround his bed like unknown relatives. He prefers his mother’s “triumphant” exit. A headlong fall down the cellar stairs kills her instantly.
…. And yet my body…. continues to be a good sport. Provided my marvelous doctor pumps steroids into my hip or spine when needed, it runs along on the leash like a nondescript mutt and wags its tail. My heart still stirs when I see a pretty girl in the street or in a subway car, but not much else happens. Except that, since by preference I stand leaning against the closed doors, she may offer me her seat. When last heard from, Schmidtie [the protagonist of a series of other Begley novels] figured he had another 10 years to live. I have a similar estimate of my longevity. Such actions as buying a new suit have become dilemmas. The clothes I have may be fatigued and frayed, but won’t they see me through the remaining seasons? Can the expense of money and waste of time required to make the purchase be justified?
My mother did not remarry after my father died. She lived very comfortably, but alone, in an apartment 15 blocks away from my wife’s and mine. If we were in the city. we went to see her often, then daily as her condition deteriorated in the last two years of her life. Our children and grandchildren tried to see her often, too — and those visits brought her great joy — but they live far away and the happiness was fleeting. During her last decade, she was very lonely. Most of the friends she had had in Poland had been killed. Those who had escaped and settled in New York one by one became homebound or bedridden, lost their minds or died. Or she found they bored her. Hearing poorly, tormented by arthritis in hip and knee joints, too proud to accept a wheelchair, she stopped going to museums, concerts and even the movies. She had loved sitting on a Central Park bench and putting her face in the sun. That humble pleasure was also abandoned; she couldn’t get the hang of using a walker.
Having rehearsed the bitter gifts reserved for age, T.S. Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding” that “the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.” The closer that place — the human condition — is to home, the harder it is to take in. I could speak movingly of Schmidt’s loneliness after the loss of his daughter, calling his existence an arid plane of granite on which she alone had flowered. But it has taken me until now, at age 78, to feel in full measure the bitterness and anguish of my mother’s solitude — and that of other old people who end their lives without a companion.
Two years older than Begley, I find this very moving. But having read it again, I must turn my head away. Thoughts like his take me down to that Little Gidding place, where I’m not yet ready to go.