I don’t know how to start. I despise the sweet rhetoric that is so optimistic and feathery, and I equally abhor the moaning of old men who should have already died and who, in fact have been dead a long time but remain breathing.
My old age is apparent to any who observe me—the wrinkles, the false pregnancy (my three year old granddaughter once asked me if I was going to have a baby) and the gray hair (one is grateful for any.) But although it may not be beautiful, age, too, is in the eyes of the beholder. To many who by chance see me walking down the street I am but another old man who is occupying space on the earth that, fortunate for the population explosion, will soon be relinquished. But the beholder also includes me.
I do not look at myself unless it is utterly unavoidable. Even alone, before and after the shower, I find myself avoiding the mirror, and if a towel is handy, I drape the same over the flesh to evade its obvious message. But the kindest part is that out in the world others must look at me where I am free of it. I cannot see my face. I cannot see my rear. I cannot see my walk. I can see my belly and my feet splayed out like a duck, but only if I look down. That being so, the vision of my old age is mostly the misfortune of others.
Having come to the obvious conclusion that I am aged, those around me offer up unnecessary help. I am cautioned about a bump on the path to prevent my falling. I am helped along the way in the dark by my friends as if they can see better than I. When I wish to arise from a sitting position I am offered a hand to assist me in lifting the inglorious heap they observe sprawled out below them. None of these kindnesses reflect my need. They only acknowledge how I am observed by those who wish to be appropriately supportive in the presence of old men. Thus they have been taught, and I accept the same as a matter of entitlement.
I admit to certain infirmities. I can no longer run, for which I am thankful. Walking is easier. I tire quicker and can now take naps without criticism. Old dogs and old men sleep a lot. That one dastardly demand forces me to the bathroom several times a night and interrupts my sleep, but I know younger men who cannot go at all. I am stiff in all the wrong places which gives me the right to complain and to receive, in kind, the socially correct sympathy of my friends. Another bonus: One’s infirmities aid one in conversation with one’s peers of similar age. If nothing else we can always talk about our old, failing hearts, our old, failing teeth, our old, failing gonads, our old, failing backs, our old, failing…the potential for mutual comparisons and therefore closeness with another human being is nearly endless.
If I am called upon to identify someone by name an invisible shield slams down in front of the memory, a shield the name cannot penetrate. I have gotten to the place where I realize names are irrelevant to my happiness. I have an excuse for not remembering them, an advantage that a younger person does not enjoy. I also cannot remember certain events that others are quick to recall in disgusting detail. I understand the function of my mind: It retains that which is useful or important to me. That three years ago I promised something to Harvey when he next appeared in my town, a person I no longer remember, and probably never met in the first place, serves to teach those who deal with old men to get their promises in writing. That includes those who carelessly make bets with me and try a day or two later to collect. How does one remember?
I like old age. Actually I am seventeen years old lurking around in this strange, inefficient covering loosely called a body. I relate to the hermit crab that crawls into discarded shells along the beach and who lives a very nice, sheltered life. I pity men who find old age a hindrance, and who whimper because they cannot, except with large sums, attract young, vibrant, exciting women. Those insensitive old fools would not know what to do with such a woman if they caught her. And any woman who would have one of those deserves what she gets—an insensitive old fool.
I have encountered enough in almost eighty years of life to finally identify that which was really not interesting or worth while in the first place. That includes smoking, booze, long, exhausting, torturous back packing into the mountains and mountain climbing—all to prove one’s manliness, fancy clothes, cuff links, ties, horseback riding that leaves the loins raw and angry, river rafting that provides wet cloths and more hypothermia than joy, fancy French restaurants where it takes fifteen waiters to provide what one good American waitress can bestow in half the time and without all the elevated noses.
I do not like golf and most golfers, most rich people, all bankers, most art galleries, most modern art, Mozart, cruise ships that are populated with the aged who are irredeemably wealthy, caviar, chicken unless it is fried and most fish unless it is also fried. I have discovered the meaning of life which is good milk chocolate with almonds, hot fudge sundaes, and my wife’s 85,000 calorie chocolate cake.
Skiing is now out of the question and was only marginally acceptable on warm sunny days for a run or two for a year or two. I cannot tolerate style shows, dinner parties with more than two other couples, stand-up cocktail parties where the most interesting thing discussed is what someone with whom one is stuck with has been doing, which is substantially nothing except most of the above. The nice thing about being old is that one does not, yes, dare not, waste any of one’s life on any of these discoveries that took a lifetime to try out, endure and discard. One’s life remaining need not be frittered away crapping out on any of this. But what remains to be discovered and experienced approaches infinity. Fortunately, most of this exists in the mind—which is a safer and more convenient place to explore.
I have always feared death, as, indeed, any honest person will admit. That fear is endemic in the species and can also be found in abundance in all other mammals, birds, fish and cockroaches, so we have nothing on them. But as I have grown older my fear of death has lessened. That is one of the kindnesses of Mother Nature. Having lived a full life, the end does not seem nearly so horrible. But my idea of eternity is, indeed, horrible and the promise of eternal life, here or elsewhere is unacceptable. Think of having to live through all of what we have already experienced—and forever. After about five hundred fifty three thousand years or thereabouts one would surely have experienced all there is to experience and beg to die, and, being unable to, one would discover that eternal life is actually hell.
Remember, a beginning always demands an end.