Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair--
(They will say: 'How his hair is growing thin!")
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin--
(They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!")
I’ve had occasion recently to revisit T.S. Eliot’s masterful stream-of-consciousness poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, and since several of the lines are currently impressed like skipping tracks of a vinyl disc in my head, I decided to ease the repetition by writing a bit about that whole subject—aging and the reflection on the meaning of what we have been.
In my case, the “with a bald spot in the middle of my hair” would be understatement—by quite a bit—and “how his arms and legs are thin” could be replaced with “how his midriff is preceding him,” but I recall how my father’s clothes were all too big on him when he reached three score and ten, and I can empathize with Prufrock. Besides his hypersensitivity about his changing appearance, Prufrock is plagued by world-weariness, the “why bother” syndrome; why keep up the rituals of coffee times and repetitive, mundane, silly conversations:
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
Being “elderly” grants permission to be honest, frank, impolite if necessary when faced with the same-old, same-old of conversation for conversations sake, but will one have the courage?
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
But knowing finally that we have settled for “shallow” in a universe that cries for “depth” may not be of much use when the truth of the matter finally comes home to roost:
And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worthwhile,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question . . .?
There must be a word for that; I think it’s part regret, part too late and part would it have made any difference. Perhaps the right word is ennui.
Whereas old age used to be an arm’s-length, somewhat mythical phenomenon belonging to a culture that was not mine, I now live in its midst. I have come to appreciate what has been called the wisdom of age in, for instance, my 98-year old neighbour who recently bought herself a new house and asked me a few days ago to help her locate the biography of Mahatma Gandhi’s wife because she’s interested in the life of that forgotten woman. And I’ve seen its opposite, the interminable assembly of jigsaw puzzles in seniors’ centre foyers, the tedious search for tiny pieces of the universe that will fit, and the exultation when a picture that was scattered has been made whole. What a metaphor!
And yet, it’s hard to assign blame to whatever sadness accompanies old age for many people. My mother-in-law lamented as she approached 90 that all her bosom friends were dead. That recognition alone must be daunting to even the strongest among us. I’ve seen the powerful need to grasp whatever intimacy is left in the world in people in nursing homes and seniors’ centres. I’ve seen how their eyes light up with the hope that my entrance will mean someone to talk to, someone to attend to their existence.
Our institutions for the elderly are wrong, somehow. Like our prisons and hospitals, they group people with similar needs together and isolate them from the population. The reason for this might be obvious; we are so afraid of being old, sick and/or terrified of deviance that we can’t stand to be reminded of our fragility by seeing aging, by seeing illness, by seeing the variety of hurts and angers that combined to make criminals. (I’m exaggerating for effect, here.) Or else we just couldn’t possibly find the manpower to service their needs except we house them close together.
Resignation is the ubiquitous option, isn’t it? I find the penultimate lines in Prufrock as compelling as any in modern poetry:
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous--
Almost, at times, the Fool.
I grow old ... I grow old ...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Perhaps that’s the inevitable finale: I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be . . .. Resignation? Acceptance? Feeble excuse?
Take your pick.
Eat a peach.