Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away,
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Morituri Salutamus
I go for a short, late afternoon walk along pavements crowded with schoolchildren of various ages heading for home, most of them continuously laughing and joshing. I do not envy them. It was lovely to be young; only a curmudgeon would begrudge them that part of life. A slight regret and one kept well in check is all I register. I remember that time warmly and try to imagine how they see me now, a slow old man with a stick.
Some make way for me politely. Others look at me as at one from another planet, at which they can never conceive themselves ever arriving. A few look at me as though I am a bit of a nuisance, slowing things down. Hardly any will see me as a survivor because that would link them emotionally with one who was once their age but now occupies a point in space and time towards which they do not yet see themselves slowly moving.
Tolstoy spoke for many when he noted to his diary that ‘old age is the most unexpected of all things that can happen to a man’. It steals up like a burglar in stockinged feet, but with a cosh. Some of us take the pension but ignore the indicated age and suddenly realise, perhaps at 80, that we have become old, as my wife and I did.
Commenting on the pleasure that memories of children and grandchildren bring in age, he sounds a poignant note.
Among the memories (of grandchildren) that stay most firmly in our minds is that of the oldest turning to his mother, at about four, and asking: “Shall I be happy all the days?” Almost heartbreaking. It made her want to hold him tight forever.
Shortly before my mother withdrew into the shady place she inhabited up to her death in 2008, she expressed Tolstoy’s surprise when contemplating the onset of age. Anger and frustration were her principal reactions to having been ambushed by the years. Still entirely on the ball at that point, she talked of an interior self that had arrested at around age 30 but that was now trapped within a body that refused to do her bidding.
Within a few weeks of the conversation in which she expressed her exasperation, she experienced the first of a series of transient ischaemic attacks, or TIAs. These small strokes forced her further and further into that hinterland of consciousness that those of past the first oddly liberating stages of middle age begin to dread increasingly.
Always one to avoid the physical excesses of sport (whilst ready enough to exercise strenuously enough if some extrinsic gain was the goal), I’ve not become heir to crumbling cartilages, dodgy hip joints or an impacting spine. And although physically I do have to do a great deal more to achieve a good deal less, that interior 30-year-old is maintaining fairly convincing control of the mental and physical extremities. The sarcoidosis with which I was diagnosed in 2007 has wreaked more psychological than material damage and – pro tem at least – I maintain a precarious truce with the demons that whisper of oncoming dereliction and decay.
I forget who it was who, on being asked if he feared the onset of old age, answered that it was greatly preferable to the alternative. With two little children, two grown-up offspring and a partner younger than myself, my investment in life is substantial. I see old age, physical infirmities notwithstanding, as a further rite of passage no less rich and challenging than what has gone before and what prevails now. If at 87 I can reflect with some of the acuteness of perception and write with the passion that clearly still drove Richard Hoggart at that advanced age then I’ll lean on my cherrywood walking stick and cup my ear and speak from the vital centre that so evidently can prevail.