It's not that age brings childhood back again. Age merely shows what children we remain.
There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.
A woman tells her doctor, 'I've got a bad back.' The doctor says, 'It's old age.' The woman says, 'I want a second opinion.' The doctor says: 'Okay - you're ugly as well.'
We have an excellent lunch with A at Père Michel in Bathurst Street in Bayswater – G, R and my cousin L, all of us in our 60s, all of us peering down that narrowing chronological corridor before us with a mixture of resentment and trepidation. A has negotiated the greater part of the corridor already: he’s 91 today and he sits beside me, never a tall man, shrunken now and slow in his movements. But his light blue eyes are bright and the slow burr of his voice is as clear and penetrating as ever. This meal is his treat and he takes pleasure in the company of these his friends, who are his family in all but blood. He lived with my mother, my father and I for most of my life, an uncle, an older brother, a some-time surrogate parent, and now in great age he remains my sole surviving older relative.
As I ride the tube and the train back home, my thoughts keep returning to my own ageing – to the prospects for one who has managed the first three-score and then some without really touching the sides, but now has rather less territory to cover for the remaining part of the journey. The breezy assumption that mortality was a condition to which others were subject but which was likely to pass me by was extinguished by cancer three years ago. For all my day-to-day energy and in spite of a strong conviction that I’m more in command of my creative faculties than at any other time in my life, I’m afflicted now by a sense of fragility. I position myself in front of the morning mirror and see a robust enough shape looking back. I can stand up straight and stretch sinews that still seem to tie the bones together efficiently enough. Weight loss following a diet has restored something of the triangular over the pear-shaped. Defective distance glasses help to blur the lines and neutralise the signs of wear and tear. Additionally I can breathe deep without feeling dizzy; I can bend my knees without firing off a cartilage fusillade; I can lift my 16-kilo weights 30 times without going cross-eyed and bloodshot. But in between these demonstrations of continuing vitality the tinnitus hum of anxiety is constant. As the triumphant Roman emperor had his appointed servant standing behind him in the parading chariot to whisper through the roar of the mob, “Remember you are mortal”, so a continuous voice provides me with the same reminder. Even as my substance and strength lifts me out of this chair, through the door and into the garden, that underlying frailty travels with me. I’m not, it seems, what once I was and soon I shan’t be as I am now.
A kind of everyday madness, this. At the very time when some degree of existential stillness should be attainable, those moments within which a breath or two of serenity might be found are spilling like water. What to do? The answer to that question, like the free beer in the pub, will be provided tomorrow. And tomorrow, and tomorrow…
In the meantime, here are some reflections on ageing free of self-pity and despair.
[1.] When interviewed on his 70th birthday by fellow oldie Michael Parkinson, Michael Caine was asked whether any half-decent case could be made for the ageing process. Without any hesitation he declared that the very good thing about ageing is that it places you in a territory where you are no longer presented with alternatives. In youth and middle age, he said (and here I’m paraphrasing), there is a sense of an indeterminate future within which you might, at some juncture, make those final, life enhancing changes. In old age that option is no longer available and you have only the opportunity to be cheerful or to give up. Before the onset of old age people treat life as a sort of rehearsal for something yet to come. Grinning, Caine said: “I tell them - this is it!”
Another point that he made was in reference to some research that he did for a part at one time. He was reading some material on abnormal psychology and he came across the assertion that when we falter in the face of adversity then we are in most danger of becoming in the moment of weakness that which we fear most. This simple truism – elusive maybe because of the somewhat specialised context within which it would normally be found – struck him forcibly and he made the decision to effect change within himself accordingly. Being able to look back on that moment of realisation and to recognise the benefits that accrued from taking positive action from it was a function only possible in age.
[2.] A joke told to me by a Jewish friend:
An elderly couple had dinner at another couple's house and, after the meal, the wives dutifully cleared the table and withdrew to the kitchen. The two elderly gentlemen leaned back in their chairs & lit cigars. Blowing a plume of blue smoke towards the ceiling, the guest said to his host: "Last night we went out to a new restaurant. It was absolutely splendid. Can’t recommend it highly enough".
The host asked: "What's the name of the restaurant?"
The first man opens his mouth to reply, then knits his brow in obvious concentration, finally asking his companion:
"Sammy, what’s the name of that red flower you give to someone you love?"
"A carnation?" his friend suggested.
"No, no. The other one," the man responded testily.
"No, no, no," growled the man. "You know - the one that’s red and has thorns."
"Oh, you mean a rose", his friend laughed.
"Yes, that’s it, that’s it! Thank you!" the first man cried. He turned toward the kitchen and yelled: "Rose, what's the name of that restaurant we went to last night?”
[3.] A sobering truth:
There is more money being spent on breast implants and Viagra than Alzheimer's research. This means that by 2020, there should be a large elderly population with perky boobs and huge erections and absolutely no recollection of how to utilise them.
The youngest of these men is 69.