Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Commonplace Book: Reflections on Old Age and Death

Ed and I had lunch last week with old friends and Ed’s former colleague John Yeakel and his wife Deborah. We met at the Hispanic Cultural Center, which offers a fine buffet lunch. The conversation often turned to the topic of aging, and the inevitable decline of health that that brings. Deborah said to me, “It happens to all of us eventually, sooner or later.” I’ve been thinking about that. I know I’ve always thought, “But it won’t happen to me.” I’ll go at full-strength until I drop; although, I can see that even now at age 62, I don’t have the stamina, flexibility, energy, and resilience that I had at 27.

What is there in literature that prepares us for this? What kind of story can one create about gradual decline, increasing disability, and eventual death? There’s no gripping plot here. The obstacles tend to involve medical interventions that will temporarily postpone inevitable death, and allow a bit of fairly good living for a little longer.

There are novels where a character reflects on his or her life from the perspective of the death bed (e.g., Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm, or Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger). But those stories are not really about old age and decline, but about the life that has been lived.

Perhaps the story passes to the younger generation, and the old person survives to impart essential wisdom, or tales of past experience to those who will survive. The old are often paired with the young – the grandparents in Heidi, for example, who are teachers and mentors. But, in our society today, how often does this occur? The elderly are often separated from their children and grandchildren, except for occasional visits. Or they become a burden, needing care, whether living in a family home or placed in a nursing home or senior citizens center.

Perhaps what the elderly and dying give us is a model, a vision, of what is ahead for all of us? Can we make some choices about how we will cope? In Patricia Wrightson’s A Little Fear, an old woman rebels, leaves her safe confining senior citizen’s home, and runs off to an old property in the Australian bush, where she confronts mythical little people. There are other stories like this of old folks rebelling. But rebelling, except in small ways, isn’t what most of us will do, or be able to do. It isn’t even the wisest thing to do – or is fiction essentially about breaking rules and conventions? Little Red Riding Hood wanders off the path and talks to the wolf, and Peter Rabbit explores the forbidden garden of Mr. MacGregor.

Of course, death -- but dramatic death! – is a staple of great literature. Murder and accidents, especially to the young, death in war, or involving sacrifice all make good stories. Even the death of the elderly can be dramatic, as in great tragedies, for example Oedipus, Macbeth, and King Lear. Even illness, but mainly in the young, can make a good story: Mimi in La Boheme, Violetta in La Traviata (who can still belt out arias on their deathbeds); and of course star-crossed lovers such as Romeo and Juliet, and Aida and Radames.

Dylan Thomas urged his father to “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light … Do not go gentle into that good night.”

But, do we really want to rage against it? Is there a time to simply accept. To let go?

Is there a literature in other cultures that does a better job of making sense of the end of life and old age?

Perhaps we need to turn to poetry, not fiction, for literature that can help us make sense of the decline of life? A.R. Ammons in "In View of the Fact," talks of:

love that can grow brighter
and deeper till the very end, gaining strength
and getting more precious all the way. . . .

Dylan Thomas, in his wonderful voice, reads "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night":

there is also a copy of the poem and a reflection on it:

But, I’m not willing to give up the search for fiction, yet, perhaps from other cultures? Suggestions welcome!

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