TELEPHONE CALL

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The man to whom I was married for twenty-six years telephoned the other day. This is not a common occurrence; I hear from him only rarely. He told me his older brother, aged 93, had just died. He wanted me to hear first, he said, because I had known the brother longer than anyone still alive.

The brother’s wife, 87 or 88 herself, had called to tell him. The brother and his wife were childless, but she was Dutch and had a daughter by a previous marriage living in Holland; they had moved there two or three years ago to be near this daughter in their extreme old age.

My former husband said he knew it might be coming. His brother had been failing since early June and his sister-in-law had been keeping him posted. It was an infection of the kidneys that didn’t respond to antibiotics and couldn’t be scanned because of a prior hip replacement. The brother died at home, “full of tubes,” after several days of extreme stress. Per their prior agreement in America, his wife finally authorized termination of life support.

The brothers had shared a bedroom all the time they were growing up. Even as adults, the younger looked up to and admired the older one. But after the older brother married forty-six years ago, there was some alienation I won’t go into that didn’t resolve until relatively late in life. Only more recently, as they became the remaining two of their generation of a large family left alive, did they seem to have overlooked their differences, and began to stay in touch regularly.

The voice on the telephone was audibly shaky. “It’s so final,” I heard. I had come to dislike the older brother; he had treated us shabbily and then completely turned his back on us when we were going through hard times. But I was sorry all the same, and said so. Certainly sorry for my former husband’s loss, and also sorry to hear of anyone’s death.

Later, however, what struck me most about this relatively short telephone conversation was something else. Apparently when she called with the final news, the sister-in-law was so overcome she could hardly speak. “I hadn’t realized they were so close,” said the man I lived with so long about two very old people who had been together forty-six years. He said it three times before we hung up.

I’m not sure whether he may have not been somewhat envious of their feelings for one another. I am sure his inability to realize people married nearly half a century would feel so close to one another explains yet again, more than anything else that happened to us while we were a couple — why we no longer are.

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REGRETS

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I may have mentioned her before.  She is Diana Athill, an Englishwoman who spent her working life editing books by well-known authors, wrote four extremely well-received memoirs in her eighties, and is now 96 1/2.  The last of these memoirs, Somewhere Towards the End, written in her 89th year, is frank and wise about what it’s like to enter one’s nineties.

Unlike Roger Angell (two posts back), who is still roaring at the injustice of being sidelined by age and the callous disregard of IMG_1639younger generations, Athill — who had a private life probably more uninhibited than Angell’s — calmly describes and accepts what is, and what is soon to come, with considerable remaining joie de vivre.

There are lots of good bits in Somewhere Towards the End, not just for those not too far behind her (like me) but also for those in the middle of life who may be dawdling along and need a gentle kick in the pants to get going with whatever it is.   For instance, Chapter 14 is entitled “Regrets” and begins like this:

It seems to me that anyone looking back over eighty-nine years ought to see a landscape pockmarked with regrets. One knows so well, after all, one’s own lacks and lazinesses, omissions, oversights, the innumerable ways in which one falls short of one’s own ideals, to say nothing of standards set by other and better people. All this must have thrown up — indeed it certainly did throw up — a large number of regrettable events, yet they have vanished from my sight. Regrets? I say to myself. What regrets? This invisibility may be partly the result of a preponderance of common sense over imagination: regrets are useless, so forget them. But it does suggest that if a person is consistently lucky beyond her expectations she ends by becoming smug. A disagreeable thought, which I suppose I ought to investigate.

After a passage about her feelings concerning never having had children, she goes on to the two that give her pause: a certain coldness, or selfishness in her own core, “which made me wary of anything to which one has to give one’s whole self, as a mother has to give herself to an infant and a toddler” and not being industrious or brave enough to enlarge the confines of her life.

In almost all ways except age, I am not much like Diana Athill, but I do sit up at how this chapter ends and reflect, “I still have five years before I myself am 89; there’s still some time.”  As for the rest of you, who probably have much more time than that, perhaps it will make you sit up and do a bit of thinking, too:

So I do have at least one major regret after all: not my childlessness, but that central selfishness in me, so clearly betrayed by the fact childlessness is not what I regret. And now I remember how my inadequacy regarding small children….caused me to let down my cousin Barbara, whose house I live in, in spite of thinking her then as I think of her now as my best friend, when some forty-odd years ago she started a family. No sooner had she got three children than she and her husband separated, so that she had to raise them single-handed, working at a very demanding full-time job in order to keep them. How she struggled through those years I don’t know, and I think she herself marvels at it in retrospect. But at the time what did I do to help her? Nothing. I shut my eyes to her problems, even saw very little of her, feeling sadly that she had disappeared into this tiresome world of small children — or world of tiresome small children — and she has said since then that she never dreamt of asking me for help, so aware was she of my coldness towards her brood. About that it is not just regret that I feel.  It is shame.

One regret brings up another, though it is, thank goodness, less shameful. It’s at never having had the guts to escape the narrowness of my life. I have a niece, a beautiful woman who I shall not name because she wouldn’t like it, who is the mother of three sons, the youngest of whom will soon be following his brothers to university, and who has continued throughout her marriage to work as a restorer of paintings. Not long ago she sat at dinner beside a surgeon, and happened to say to him that if she had her time over again she would choose to train in some branch of medicine. He asked her how old she was. Forty-nine, she told him. Well, he said, she still had time to train as a midwife if she wanted to, they accepted trainees up to the age of fifty; whereupon she went home and signed up. The last time I saw her she could proudly report that she had now been in charge of six births all on her own. There had been moments, she said, when she felt “What on earth am I doing here?, but she still couldn’t imagine anything more thrilling that being present at — helping at — the beginning of new life. The most moving thing of all, she said, was when the father cried (there had been fathers present at all six births). When that happened she had to go out of the room to hide the fact that she was crying too.  She is a person of the most delicate reserve, so watching her face light up when she spoke about being present at a birth filled me with envy. Having had the courage and initiative suddenly to step out of a familiar and exceptionally agreeable life into something quite different, she has clearly gained something of inestimable value. And I have never done anything similar.

It is not as though I was never impatient at having only one life at my disposal. A great deal of my reading has been done for the pleasure of feeling my way into other lives, and quite a number of my love affairs were undertaken for the same reason (I remember once comparing a sexual relationship with going out in a glass-bottomed boat). But to turn such idle fancies into action demands courage and energy, and those I lacked. Even if I had been able to summon up such qualities, I am sure I would never have moved over into anything as useful as midwifery, but think of the places to which I might have travelled, the languages I might have learnt! Greek, for example: I have quite often thought of how much I would like to speak modern Greek so that I could spend time earning a living there and getting to know the country in a serious way, but I never so much as took an evening class in it. And when I went to Oxford, I indolently chose to read English literature, which I know I was going to read anyway, for pleasure, instead of widening my range by embarking on a scientific subject, such as biology. And never at any time did I seriously try to use my hands (except at embroidery, which I am good at). Think how useful and probably enjoyable it would be to build a bookcase. I really am sorry about that.

So there are two major regrets, after all: that nub of coldness at the centre, and laziness (I think laziness played a greater part than cowardice in my lack of initiative, though some cowardice there was). They are real, but I can’t claim they torment me, or even that I shall often think about them. And at those two I shall stop…. I am not sure that digging out past guilts is a useful occupation for the very old, given that one can do so little about them. I have reached a stage at which one hopes to be forgiven for concentrating on how to get through the present.

ROGER ANGELL ON LIFE AFTER NINETY

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Roger Angell and his dog Andy, January 2014.  Photo courtesy of The New Yorker.

Roger Angell and his dog Andy, January 2014. [Photo courtesy of The New Yorker.]

[The most viewed piece I ever posted was a summary of “This Old Man,” an essay written by Roger Angell. It had just been published in The New Yorker.  My post ran sixteen months ago, on February 14, 2014, But it still shows up in the stats as being read almost every day by one or more people somewhere in the world.

Initially, I credited its popularity to the fact that the TGOB post offered readers almost half of the Angell essay for free, whereas The New Yorker archives were not free then, except to subscribers. But now I think there’s something more to it than that.  As far as I know,” This Old Man” is almost unique in being written by someone with a clear and literate voice who was in the tenth decade of his life — 94 when the essay was published, 95 this year.

That may seem a long way off to most of you.  Not to me. In less than a month, I will be 84. So once in a while I go back and reread the post, to remind myself of what it may be like for me in just ten years, if I’m lucky enough still to be here then.  Of course, Angell has far more money than I do, and more connections, and more this, that and the other thing to perhaps ease his journey towards the end.  But I do believe most of the essentials about which he writes remain the same for everyone.

Of the sixteen people who clicked “like” on the post when it first appeared, I recognize the avatars of seven or eight.  But many newer readers and followers of TGOB may not have gone rummaging in the blog’s archives to find it.  Therefore, I hope those of you to whom it’s already familiar will humor me for running it once more.  It does make those of us who are only a bit younger, or even very much younger, stop and think.]

ROGER ANGELL ON LIFE IN HIS NINETIES

[A reblog]

Roger Angell was born in 1920. He is the son of Katherine White, an early and renowned fiction editor at The New Yorker, and step-son of E.B. White, author of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. Angell himself has been associated with and written for The New Yorker nearly all of his professional life, more recently always about baseball, and still does a baseball blog for the magazine. I can take baseball or leave it (which is more than I can say for football, basketball or hockey), but mostly I leave it now that my two sons are long out of the house. So when I see something by Angell in the magazine, I’m inclined to skip it.

However, this week’s The New Yorker contains a long piece he has just written which is not about baseball. It’s called “This Old Man” (subtitled “Life in the Nineties”), and I could not put it down until I had read every word. Finding something good about getting old written by someone a bit older than me doesn’t happen every day! So I wish I could just copy out the whole thing here to show everybody. But it’s too long. (Pages 60-65 in the February 17 & 24, 2014 issue, the one with the annual Cholly Knickerbocker cover.)

Nonetheless, without pushing the outer limits of bloggery too far, I can probably offer a taste from the middle (about how the rest of the world treats you when you’re old) and then the last page and a half, about which I thought, oh yes, oh yes, oh yes, all the way to the tiny diamond which marks the end.

If you’re twenty-five and feel you don’t need to think about things like this right now, you probably don’t. Unless you’ve got a great-aunt or great-uncle still hanging in there, and want to know what it feels like. But your generation probably doesn’t read TGOB much, if at all. So this post is mainly for everyone else.

Because I’ve had to cut somewhere, I’m skipping the beginning and some of the middle, in which Angell describes his present pretty-far-gone physical condition (eyes, limbs, spine, heart), his personal losses (wife Carol, daughter Callie, dog Harry, many many friends), his remaining joys, his thoughts on death and dying. You can find the magazine online (Google it if you don’t subscribe), should you want to read it all. This part is from page 63:

We elders — what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel? — we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends — old friends but actually not all that old: they’re in their sixties — and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming…or Virginia Woolf…. There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. What? Hello? Didn’t I just say something? Have I left the room? Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA — a transient ischemic attack? I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two or response. Not tonight, though. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we’re invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours…..

And here are the last two columns of page 64 and all of page 65:

I get along. Now and then it comes to me that I appear to have more energy and hope than some of my coevals, but I take no credit for this. I don’t belong to a book club or a bridge club; I’m not taking up Mandarin or practicing the viola. In a sporadic effort to keep my brain from moldering, I’ve begun to memorize shorter poems — by Auden, Donne, Ogden Nash, and more — which I recite to myself some nights while walking my dog, Harry’s successor fox terrier, Andy. I’ve also become a blogger, and enjoy the ease and freedom of the form: it’s a bit like making a paper airplane and then watching it take wing below your window. But shouldn’t I have something more scholarly or complex than this put away by now — late paragraphs of accomplishments, good works, some weightier-op-cits? I’m afraid not. The thoughts of age are short, short thoughts. I don’t read Scripture and cling to no life precepts, except perhaps to Walter Cronkite’s rules for old men, which he did not deliver over the air: Never trust a fart. Never pass up a drink. Never ignore an erection.

I count on jokes, even jokes about death.

Small Boy: My name is Irving and my dad is a mechanic.
Teacher: A mechanic! Thank you, Irving. Next?
Small Girl: My name is Emma and my mom is a lawyer.
Teacher: How nice for you, Emma. Next?
Second Small Boy: My name is Luke and my dad is dead.
Teacher: Oh, Luke, how sad for you. We’re all very sorry about that, aren’t we class? Luke, do you think you could tell us what Dad did before he died?
Luke (seizes his throat): He went “N’gungghhh!”
Not bad — I’m told that fourth graders really go for this one. Let’s try another.

A man and his wife tried and tried to have a baby, but without success. Years went by and they went on trying, but no luck. They liked each other, so the work was always a pleasure, but they grew a bit sad along the way. Finally, she got pregnant, was very careful, and gave birth to a beautiful eight-pound-two-ounce baby boy. The couple were beside themselves with happiness. At the hospital that night, she told her husband to stop by the local newspaper and arrange for a birth announcement, to tell all their friends the good news. First thing next morning, she asked if he’d done the errand.

“Yes, I did,” he said, “but I had no idea those little notices in the paper were so expensive.”

“Expensive?” she said. “How much was it?”

“It was eight hundred and thirty-seven dollars. I have the receipt.”

“Eight hundred and thirty-seven dollars!” she cried. “But that’s impossible. You must have made some mistake. Tell me exactly what happened.”

“There was a young lady behind a counter at the paper, who gave me the form to fill out,” he said. “I put in your name and my name and little Teddy’s name and weight, and when we’d be home again and, you know, ready to see friends. I handed it back to her and she counted up the words and said, “How many insertions?” I said twice a week for fourteen years, and she gave me the bill. O.K.?”

I heard this tale more than fifty years ago, when my first wife, Evelyn, and I were invited to tea by a rather elegant older couple who were new to our little Rockland County community. They were in their seventies, at least, and very welcoming, and it was just the four of us. We barely knew them and I was surprised when he turned and asked her to tell us the joke about the couple trying to have a baby. “Oh, no,” she said, “they wouldn’t want to hear that.”

“Oh, come on, dear — they’ll love it,” he said, smiling at her. I groaned inwardly and was preparing a forced smile while she started off shyly, but then, of course, the four of us fell over laughing together.

That night, Evelyn said, “Did you see Keith’s face while Edie was telling that story? Did you see hers? Do you think it’s possible that they’re still — you know, still doing it?”

“Yes, I did– yes, I do,” I said. “I was thinking exactly the same thing. They’re amazing.”

This was news back then, but probably shouldn’t be by now. I remember a passage I came upon years later, in an Op-Ed piece in the Times, written by a man who’d just lost his wife. “We slept naked in the same bed for forty years,” it went. There was also my splendid colleague Bob Bingham, dying in his late fifties, who was asked by a friend what he’d missed or would do differently if given the chance. He thought for an instant, and said, “More venery.”

More venery. More love; more closeness; more sex and romance. Bring it back, no matter what, no matter how old we are. This fervent cry of ours has been certified by Simone de Beauvoir and Alice Munro and Laurence Olivier and any number or remarried or recoupled ancient classmates of ours. Laurence Olivier? I’m thinking of what he says somewhere in an interview: “Inside, we’re all seventeen, with red lips.”

This is a dodgy subject, coming as it does here from a recent widower, and I will risk further breach of code and add that this was something that Carol and I now and then idly discussed. We didn’t quite see the point of memorial fidelity. In our view, the departed spouse — we always thought it would be me — wouldn’t be around anymore but knew or had known that he or she was loved forever. Please go ahead, then, sweetheart — don’t miss a moment. Carol said this last: “If you haven’t found someone else by a year after I’m gone I’ll come back and haunt you.”

Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love. We oldies yearn daily and hourly for conversation and a renewed domesticity, for company at the movies or while visiting a museum, for someone close by in the car when coming at home at night. This is why we throng Match.com and OkCupid in such numbers — but not just for this surely. Rowing in Eden (in Emily Dickinson’s words: “Rowing in Eden –/ Ah — the sea”) isn’t reserved for the lithe and young, the dating or the hooked-up or the just lavishly married, or even for couples in the middle-aged mixed-doubles semifinals, thank God. No personal confession or revelation impends here, but these feelings in old folks are widely treated like a raunchy secret. The invisibility factor — you’ve had your turn — is back at it again. But I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that, whatever our age, never lose the longing: just look at our faces. If it returns, we seize upon it avidly, stunned and altered again.

Nothing is easy at this age, and first meetings for old lovers can be a high-risk venture. Reticence and awkwardness slip into the room. Also happiness. A wealthy old widower I knew married a nurse he met while in the hospital, but had trouble remembering her name afterward. He called her “kid.” An eighty-plus, twice-widowed lady I’d once known found still another love, a frail but vibrant Midwest professor, now close to ninety, and the pair got in two or three happy years together before he died as well. When she called his children and arranged to pick up her things at his house, she found every possession of hers lined up outside the front door.

But to hell with them and with all that, O.K.? Here’s to you, old dears. You got this right, every one of you. Hook, line, and sinker; never mind the why or wherefore; somewhere in the night; love me forever, or at least until next week. For us and for anyone this unsettles, anyone who’s younger and still squirms at the vision of an old couple embracing, I’d offer John Updike’s “Sex or death: you take your pick” — a line that appears (in a slightly different form) in a late story of his, “Playing with Dynamite.”

This is a great question, an excellent insurance-plan choice, I mean. I think it’s in the Affordable Care Act somewhere. Take it from us, who know about the emptiness of loss, and are still cruising along here feeling lucky and not yet entirely alone.

You may not like the jokes. But oh, is he ever right! Here’s one more little bit to leave off with:

In the first summer after Carol had gone, a man I’d known slightly and pleasantly for decades listened while I talked about my changed routines and my doctors and dog walkers and the magazine. I paused for a moment, and he said, “Plus you have us.”

Another message — also brief, also breathtaking — came on an earlier afternoon at my longtime therapist’s, at a time when I felt I’d lost almost everything. “I don’t know how I’m going to get through this,” I said at last.

A silence, then: “Neither do I. But you will.”

RIGHT UP MY ALLEY: DONALD HALL AT 86

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Just when I realized I’m exactly 83 1/2 today  — it sounds awful to me, too — this book fortuitously arrived.  Donald Hall is a former Poet Laureate, his career in letters capped by a National Medal of Arts awarded by the president.  He doesn’t write poetry any more. He says in his new book: “As I grew older — collapsing into my seventies, glimpsing ahead the cliffs of eighties, colliding into eighty-five — poetry abandoned me.”

Now he writes essays, very slowly — because for him:

[t]he greatest pleasure in writing is rewriting….Revision takes time, a pleasing long process.  Some of these essays took more than eighty drafts, some as few as thirty. Writing prose, I used to be a bit quicker. Maybe I discovered more things to be persnickety about. Most likely age has slowed down my access to the right word….Really, I am self-indulgent, I cherish revising so much.

But at last we have fourteen of these slowly simmered pieces gathered together in a slim little book called Essays After Eighty.  I was about to go out for a walk, the weather having magnanimously permitted such an outing, when it showed up in my mailbox. (Not actually a surprise; I did order it.) I turned right around and went back home to look inside.

In just 134 pages — I said it was slim — you can find Hall’s thoughts on looking out the window, on writing essays after eighty, on the three beards he’s had in his life, on death, on physical malfitness (his own), on garlic, on fame (his own and others), and on the human condition. Yet it’s not sad at all. To give you a taste, let me quote from the end of “Three Beards,” not because I admire beards and grubbiness — don’t imagine for a minute that either are “right up my alley” — but because I find invigorating the resurrection of his will to live to the hilt, in his fashion, after the premature death at 47 of his truly beloved wife, Jane Kenyon. On my half-year birthday today, I really need to read stuff like this:

Jane died at forty-seven after fifteen months of leukemia. I mourned her deeply, I wrote nothing but elegy, I wailed her loss, but — as I excused myself in a poem — “Lust is grief / that has turned over in bed / to look the other way.”  Among spousal survivors, many cannot bear the thought of another lover.  Some cannot do without. In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom thinks of a graveyard as a place to pick up a grieving widow. Thus I found myself in the pleasant company of a young woman who worked for a magazine — a slim, pretty blonde who was funny, sharp, and promiscuous. (We never spoke of love.) I will call her Pearl.  After dinner, we sat in my living room drinking Madeira and talking. I pulled out a cigarette and asked her if she would mind….”I was going crazy,” she said, and pulled out her own. She told me about her father’s suicide. I spoke of Jane’s death. When she left the room to pee, I waited by the bathroom door for her to emerge. I led her unprotesting to the bedroom, and a few moments later, gaily engaged, she said, “I want to put my legs around your head.” (It was perfect iambic pentameter.) When we woke in the morning, we became friends. We drank coffee and smoked. When I spoke again of Jane, Pearl said that perhaps I felt a bit happier this morning.

After seven weeks Pearl ended things. Before I received my dismissal, we lay in the backyard sunning, and she suggested I grow a beard. She had seen book jackets. “You’ll look Mephistophelian,” she said. That’s all I needed. It suited me again to change the way I looked because the world had utterly changed. I mourned Jane all day every day, and acknowledged her death by the third beard and the girlfriends. Some entanglements ended because I was needy, others because of adultery or my gradual physical disability. A California friend and I commuted to visit each other for more than a year. She diminished my beard by trimming it into a goatee, getting me to smooth my cheeks from sideburns to mustache and chin. After dozens of assignations amassing airline mileage, we decided we had had enough. I grew the big beard back.

A dozen years ago I found Linda and love again. We live an hour apart but spend two or three nights a week together.  She is an Old Lady of the Mountain in her bone structure, with pretty dimples. She is tender and as sloppy as I am. She abjures earrings, makeup and dresses; she wears blue jeans and yard-sale shirts. Combs and brushes are for sissies. We watch movies, we read Edith Wharton to each other, and we travel. In 2002 we impulsively flew to London, and later we took many trips for poetry readings without ever combing our hair.

When I turned eighty and rubbed testosterone onto my chest, my beard roared like a lion and lengthened four inches. The hair on my head grew longer and more jumbled, and with Linda’s encouragement I never restrained its fury. As Linda wheelchaired me through airports, and my eighties prolonged, more than ever I enjoyed being grubby and noticeable. Declining more swiftly toward the grave, I make certain that everyone knows — my children know, Linda knows, my undertaker knows — that no posthumous razor may scrape my blue face.