Ageing gracefully - Airdre Grant - style.
T he holiday season is one of a lot of comings and goings. We change our outlook for a wee while. We get off the daily grind. Relatives and friends turn up and join in our life for a while, we go camping or travelling. We also have comings and goings internally. Children go for access visits - memories of other happier/sadder times emerge, roles change, rituals get observed and ignored. For a while the tight framework of daily life eases and we get to do it differently. We read frivolous novels. We eat luxury food. We drink more. We have a lie in, in the morning. We wear loose clothes. We ditch pointy and uncomfortable shoes. We rest. We watch children play. We do as little as possible and we take a long time about it. Sometimes, we even contemplate our lives, from the safety of a hammock or a beach towel.
I have been in the company of several people in their eighties recently and I have been keen to ask them about their lives. I wanted them to tell me what matters and what doesn't, what really counted after all the comings and goings of life. I guess I was looking for a few tips on what is a good place to invest time and effort. But blow me down if they weren't much help. They haven't had much to say about the meaning of life. I expected them to tell me about the merits of love and family. They talked of hips and heart disease. They seemed resigned to pain and discomfort and a loss of dignity and privacy. They knew their families were too busy for them. They knew they were a burden. Loved maybe, a burden definitely. So my clumsy plan to find a short cut to wisdom was foiled. Once again, as per frigging usual, it looks like I have to work it out myself.
But old age fascinates me. Once it seemed impossibly remote, now its coming closer and I am looking at how it happens for us here in the cosseted West. We are not particularly good at old age. It embarrasses and confronts and scares us. Our media encourages the absurd notion that we can put off the inevitable with a range of creams, supplements and the use of surgery. In that way, other people might get old, but we won't. We will do yoga, eat organic vegies, meditate and move into retirement villages where we will, according to the brochures, walk hand in hand with well disposed partners (also ageing gracefully) on beaches into endless sunsets. Money is never an issue for the inhabitants of these well groomed homes. Ironic really. We prepare so carefully for birth, discussing ways and means, midwives and birthing centres, issues of natural, intervention and so forth. But we don't seem to have those options for our exit. Do they have deathing rooms? Wouldn't that be nice? A place where you can go and have the music you like, pictures you like and the people you love, while you work in cooperation upon the manner of your leaving?
We all know that we will age and decline like everyone else. The final frontier of Death awaits all of us, and we cannot dictate the manner and moment of our crossing. The Death Notices in the newspaper record the passing of loved family members. Obituaries are for the more elevated in society, recording their achievements and contributions. Death notices are for the rest of us mob. They tell of love and cherished family members. They don't talk of careers or greatness, they write of affection and friendship.
Perhaps in a melodramatic moment you have considered your funeral and how terribly sorry everyone will be, how they will regret not recognising your greatness and splendid nature. You have thought about the fine things they will say about you, the tears that will be shed on your behalf. But have you thought about your death notice? It is likely that you will be remembered less for workplace efficiency and more for kindness. You will be remembered for things you have forgotten about and card games over a particular summer, the time you won at Monopoly and couldn't stop gloating for days, your bad jokes and your taste in motorcars. Death notices are about lives well lived, they tell of courage, generosity, humanness, and sweetness. The irony is that death notices tell us a great deal about life. They never say, "he had a big house, an excellent share portfolio and a really fast car" or " she was slim with lovely blond highlights". They say words like "adored Nana", "dearly loved wife", "and cherished pop", "devoted auntie". The death notices are about peace, lives well lived and well loved.
When it comes to the deeper things in life I find the poets a great help. They assist me in understanding when I move through my reflections on age and death. This poem by Raymond Carver has been quoted before, but it bears repeating. He wrote it for his wife as she was dying. Its called Late Fragment:
And did you get what
You wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
Beloved on the earth.
Mary Oliver in When Death Comes says this:
When it's over I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to mazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened'
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.
By listening to poets, I think I get a truer guide on what's valuable and what's not, they give me clues on how to tread the path and what to pay attention to. Literature helps, not slogans, so when Dumbledore tells Harry Potter that being able to love is what separates good from evil, I am paying attention. In the meantime, I must make every effort to take fish oils, exercise, meditate and not sulk when I am trounced (again) at Ludo. Maybe my then my Death Notice will record me as a good sport - that's not a bad thing to be remembered for.
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