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.”

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BECOMING NOBODY’S CHILD

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[One by one, your parents die. Then there’s no more mother or dad standing between you and whatever it is that lies ahead for us all. You’re next.

Unless you’re a person of great and abiding faith in a hereafter (which I am not), the feeling of loss following the death of the second parent is therefore accompanied by another realization: there’s no more buffer zone.

Of course, that’s irrational.  There’s never a buffer zone.  Some people die while their own parents are still alive, ripped away forever in the vibrancy of their youth.  And in other cases, there remains for a while the possibly false comfort of surviving aunts or uncles, keeping you from immediately confronting the harshness of acknowledging it’s your turn now.

But your parents are where you come from. They’re your first knowledge of and connection with the world. Once they’re both gone, it’s never the same again.

I was an only child. I didn’t have a good relationship with my mother after I reached adolescence.  (A euphemism.) But I was necessarily the one they called in Massachusetts when she died in California towards the end of November 1993.  She had colon cancer. However, her doctors had thought she might have another three years or so — even without surgery, which she had firmly refused. The call was therefore unexpected. I confirmed by telephone that she was to be cremated, as my father had decided for both of them. Then I took a five day leave of absence to fly three thousand miles, settle her affairs and bring back the ashes.

I could have left them. The state of California would have disposed of them, either over the ocean, as she had decided my father’s ashes should be dispersed, or over a deserted piece of land in the middle of nowhere between Sacramento and Nevada which had been designated for such purposes.  But whatever she was thinking when she authorized the scattering of the remains of my father, I wouldn’t do that to her.

As it turned out, it took about eighteen months before I was able to sort out my own affairs, which were then in flux, and also come to terms with the realization that my mother and I would now never make peace with each other, and that it was time to say a final goodbye, even though that meant I’d be next in line. 

Perhaps I was lucky never to have had to attend a funeral, other than my mother-in-law’s (which I had had no hand in planning).  So here I had to invent my way. However, we all do what we have to do — as I did, in the spring twenty years ago.

Now we’re in the spring again.  If I were still living in Massachusetts, I would be visiting the cemetery instead of sending commemorative flowers. However, I can also re-run the piece about burying her that I posted on November 20, 2013, very early in the life of this blog. Truth to tell, it’s starting to feel rather like ancient history to me.  But I suppose that happens to us all: eventually we do get used to being nobody’s child. Sort of.]

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BURYING MY MOTHER

My mother died, after seven years of widowhood, of colon cancer. I’m not sure she knew what she had. She was 89 and living in an assisted living community in Palm Springs, California to which I had moved her. She refused to be moved to a similar facility in Boston, where she would be near me and I could see her more often. “What would I do there?” she said.

I was her only child.

My phone rang at 2 a.m. on the Friday after Thanksgiving, 1993. I had been to Palm Springs for three days only a few weeks before, and had made arrangements to visit with her again for Christmas. But she couldn’t wait. She refused to eat. I think she wanted to die.

The large corporate firm where I was then practicing law permitted five days of leave “for the death of a parent, spouse or child.” I flew out the next day to settle accounts, dispose of her furniture, and collect the ashes. Many years before, my father had directed that they both be cremated. The crematorium gave me her wedding ring and a small, clear plastic bag of ashes in a plastic box — all that remained of her. I brought the box home and put it in a bureau drawer for the time being, while I sorted out my life (then somewhat in flux) and tried to sort out my feelings.

When I was a child, she was the center of the universe.

Then I grew up. She didn’t like my posture, my glasses, my clothes. I chose bad earners for husbands, lived in “ugly” houses, had disappointing children. I didn’t call often enough. I didn’t write often enough. And what did I want to be a lawyer for? Although she never actually said it, she didn’t like me.

She was the great failed love affair of my life. What was I going to do with her now she was gone? Keep her forever in my drawer so she would always, at last, be mine?

————–

A year later I had moved across the river to Cambridge. As a resident, I could have bought a plot in the crowded Cambridge municipal cemetery for $50. Except I couldn’t. Not with Mount Auburn Cemetery (much more expensive) across the street from my bedroom window — historic, beautiful, landscaped: a place to walk, reflect, and bury your dead in style.

My friend Gayle drove in from Worcester to help me choose. It was January 1995, and bitter cold. We clomped up and down the icy paths, looking at the available spaces for ashes marked on a map from the Director of Sales. Several of them were near Azalea Pond, lovely even in winter — bordered by weeping willows and encircled by a low stone wall.

I could hear my mother’s voice in my head. “You’re putting me here, where cars can park on me?”

We walked closer to the pond, inside the stone enclosure. “Next to a woman with a husband? When I have no husband?”

We were freezing. Enough with the looking. I bought a place for her inscription on a pedestal facing the pond, with its own willow nearby. No cars. Higher than all the other inscriptions facing the pond. And a double (at double the price), with room for my father’s name above hers. No one would ever pity my mother as a woman without a husband!

The carpenter who was altering the closets in my new apartment made two small mitered pine boxes, without nails. He refused to take money. It was an honor, he said. My father’s ashes had been scattered over the Pacific, so I had nothing of him to put in his box. Instead, four photographs: as a boy, a young groom, the father of my girlhood, a retiree under the California sun.

I ordered flowers. I flew both sons to Boston for the ceremony. They were young, and without plane fare. Without strong ties to my mother, either. But they were all the extended family she had. And I wanted them to see how it was done. So they would be ready for the next time.

Gayle insisted on coming too. There would be four of us.

One problem, though. What should I say? What good things could I say?

It took until the night before. And then I had it. At midnight, I wrote it out to read at the grave site, so I should get it right.

The day was clear and sunny. One son carried the box with my father’s pictures. The other son carried the other one, my mother’s box. Before we closed it, I wet a finger and smoothed the ashes inside. I couldn’t help it. One last caress. Then I licked my finger clean.

Each son placed a box in the opening in the earth which had been dug for us. The grounds-keeper threw fresh earth into the hole.

This is what I said at the grave of my mother on May 20, 1995. Maybe it made her happy at last.

We have come here today, to this beautiful place, to honor Michael Raginsky, who was my father, and Myra Raginsky, who was my mother. “Honor” was not a word in their vocabulary. “Respect for parents” would have been more like it. But meaning no disrespect, “honor” is the right word.

Remembering my parents as they were in their later years, and certainly as my two children may remember them, they seemed to live timid, critical, constricted lives — without even the modicum of daily happiness to which everyone is entitled. And yet, once — before any of us knew them — these two people whom we recall as so modest and somewhat fearful, did something so absolutely extraordinary that it still amazes me every time I think of it.

At the ages of seventeen and nineteen — when they were still by our standards barely out of adolescence, Mirra Weinstein and Mendel Raginsky, as they were then known — not yet married to each other, or even thinking of it — said goodbye forever to parents, her brother, his sisters, friends, the world as they knew it, and voyaged to a place literally halfway around the globe where they did not know anyone at all, did not know the way things worked, did not even know how to speak — to anyone except each other and other Russians.

I don’t know if they ever realized afterwards what a remarkable feat of courage that was. I don’t know if they ever were sorry, wished they could go back. They didn’t talk about things like that. I do know they Americanized their names, learned English, married, became citizens, made a life, and raised a child. Their ways were not always the ways I might have wished they had. But I would not be here if it were not for that remarkable voyage into the unknown on which they embarked in 1922, and neither would my children. And that is why “honor” is the right word.

If there is a somewhere after here, Mother and Dad, I hope you are pleased that your journey has ended at this tranquil and lovely place of trees and pond. Despite all my carryings on, I always loved you, and I always will.”

Then we arranged our flowers on the fresh raw earth, placed four small stones on top of the pedestal, and went away to the Charles Hotel to have a champagne lunch.

TASTING THE MARMALADE: A REBLOG

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One of the non-WordPress blogs I follow through email is The 70-Something Blog, by Judy F. Kugel.  A recently retired assistant dean at The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Judy has been posting twice a week for six years, since she turned seventy.  I only discovered her, though, when I began blogging last November.  Her posts are an astringent antidote to mine.  She is neat, organized, efficient.  Or presents that way online.  Reading her is good for me.

Several days ago, Judy asked her husband Peter to do a guest post.  Peter, a professor of cognitive science at Boston College (who I believe has now also retired), is in his eighties. His post therefore had a great deal of resonance for me. [“Resonance” is his word, and also Martin Amis’s, as you will see below.] The post isn’t just for old folks, though.  Which is why I’ve re-blogged it here. I do wish he hadn’t referred to his seventies as a “catastrophe,” but maybe he was just playing funny guy.

Tasting the Marmalade

Hi.  I’m Judy’s husband, Peter, and she has invited me to be a guest blogger again.  Perhaps she thought that I might have some more wisdom to share about life in one’s seventies, since I’m in my eighties and I’ve been through the full catastrophe. But I’d rather talk about life in my decade.  Judy’s next one.

This morning, at breakfast, I stopped reading the newspaper and paid attention to what I was eating – a good piece of bread, toasted, spread with unsalted butter and topped with orange marmalade.  I’ve been ignoring my breakfast while reading the paper for years.

But when you’re in your eighties, you realize that the number of breakfasts you’re going to eat is finite. Oh sure, they’ve been finite all along, but small numbers are more finite  than big ones.  As there are fewer of them left, they are getting more precious.

It’s not just the days that are getting fewer.  So are the things I can do and enjoy.  I can no longer ride my bicycle to Harvard Square, let alone down the “D” roads of France.  I can no longer see well enough to drive at night and one of these days I won’t be able to drive at all. I’m losing my sense of smell.  My memory isn’t what it used to be.

However, having less left is making what I still have seem more valuable.  I think Martin Amis got it right when he said  “I find that in your 60s everything begins to look sort of slightly magical again. And it’s imbued with a kind of leave-taking resonance.”

I’m finding that leave-taking resonance in my 80s.  I suspect that it’s findable at any age.

Isn’t it nice to hear from a man for a change?  If you have time, check out the link to the Martin Amis interview, too.  Lots of good stuff there to mull over, even if — for you — “getting old” is still pretty far away.