Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
He’s one hundred years old and his long hands, once strong, are growing translucent. He does not so much sit in his wheelchair as he is held upright and at a slight slant by straps. Even awake his eyes are shut against the glare and the blur of the florescent lights in the roof of the home.
His meals of pureed food are spoon fed to him by attendants who speak to him in the tones he once used, long ago, on his infant children. When the drapes in his room are partially opened they reveal a view of a gravel roof, exhaust fans, and the brick facade of the opposite wing of the home. It’s not a view but he doesn’t mind. His eyes are shut against the glare and the blur of the present, and he’s gone off on a fishing trip in the summer of 1949 where he will say to no one in particular, “Jesus, the fish are thick on the ground.”
Don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s not in the here and now, because he’ll surprise you now and then. He’ll come out for a bit if it is worth it, but it seldom is. And then only for a moment.
He’s my mother’s brother, my uncle, and his life has now spanned a full century.
In the year of his birth, 1909, the NAACP was founded as was Tel Aviv while the keel of what was to become the Titanic was laid in Belfast. Taft took over the Presidency from Roosevelt (Theodore) and “Alice Huyler Ramsey, a 22-year-old housewife and mother from Hackensack, New Jersey, became the first woman to drive across the United States.” Airplanes were only six years old but the Germans were already working on the anti-aircraft gun. Wisely so since the United States Army Signal Corp Division purchased the world’s first military airplane from the Wright brothers in that same year. Not to be outdone, the US Navy decided it needed a central base in the Pacific and thought Pearl Harbor made strategic sense.
In the year of his birth Geronimo died, Barry Goldwater was born, and Guglielmo Marconi received the Nobel Prize in Physics for the invention of radio. There’s a radio in his room next to his bed but it’s never turned on. Neither is the television that hangs from the ceiling and if his phone rings, it’s a mistake. But in his mind, there are signals still coming in from elsewhere, from elsewhen, from out there, and if you sit with him quietly, without trying to engage him and without expectation; if you sit with him “where here and now cease to matter” you can sometimes sense where he really lives in this his hundredth year.
C. S. Lewis observed “You don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body.” Live long enough and your body slowly betrays you and sometimes takes your mind and soul with it.
Many of my uncle’s relatives seem to think that’s what has happened to him. And perhaps they are correct. Alzheimer’s, senile dementia, and other associated afflictions are the terror of the elderly and their families. Indeed, they are the things we fear most about growing old next to unremitting pain from a degenerating disease. As one of my cousins said, “It’s about ‘quality of life.’
Dementia might well be the overriding problem that afflicts my uncle as he waits in his room with his name on a card in a slotted holder next to the door. “Dementia” is what we all assume when the elderly become less and less present to us as we perform our dutiful visits. We reintroduce ourselves and then carefully monitor how long they can hold who we are (son, daughter, sister, brother, friend) in their minds, and measure that against how long they held that knowledge the year before. It is almost always for a shorter time and that calculation distresses us.
So we call for more care, for more or different drugs. After all, their care is expensive and we need to get the value for money spent on our aged relatives knowing. We want them to know at least, who we are for more than five minutes. Their forgetfulness distresses us because it cuts us off from them just when our need to remind them of our love is greatest. It also upsets us because it is a portent of what waits for us when it is our name on the card in the slotted holder next to the door. Dementia.
Maybe. Maybe not.
I’d escorted my then 94-year-old mother from her home in California to her childhood home in Fargo for my uncle’s 100th birthday. My mother is still active and present and, all those who know her agree, inspiring. But her knees have betrayed her recently and long flights that change planes in Denver are something that can no longer be done without a dutiful son whose firm motto is: “There will be no falls on my watch.”
In the same home, just down the hall from my 100-year-old uncle, lives my mother’s other brother Jack who is 96. He sleeps a lot but still reads, or seems to read, the daily paper. Mom would spend time with him too. During those moments I’d sit with my uncle aslant in his wheelchair with his eyes shut against the glare of the lights and the blur of the common room. It was mostly a quiet time but, now and then, he’d speak to the air. He’d say things like, “Well, Barbara, what are we going to do about the tree this year?” and, after a minute or so, “Biggest damn Walleye I ever saw.” Fragments and scraps of thoughts. As the poet says, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
It came to me that perhaps we sometimes mistake senile dementia for sanity in the elderly; that we are so impressed with our slivers and crumbs of knowledge about the workings of the human mind we mistake them for insights into the terra incognita of the human soul. It seemed to me, as I sat with my uncle, that maybe what I was hearing from him was a sane man’s sane reaction to his circumstances.
If you knew to a certainty that every single day for the rest of your life, you’d be dressed in diapers and confined to a wheelchair with blurred eyesight in a small brick-walled room what would you do?
If you knew to a certainty that at every meal for the rest of your life a woman who talked to you as if you were a baby would spoon three flavors of baby food into your mouth, what would you do?
If, opening your eyes, you knew that all you would see would be a bright fluorescent glare and the blurred shapes of dozens of others, mostly women, lolling about in wheelchairs, what would you do?
If you knew to a dead, solid certainty that you were never going to be released from your room until you were released, at long last, from your body, what would you do?
If you were a sane man, just what would you, at long last, do?
I don’t know about you, but I would figure a way out of that prison. And if that way out was only deeper in, that’s where I’d go. I’d go deep into my Palace of Memory and I’d use all my energy to construct a world inside that was made of the most vivid moments of all the years I’d lived.
In my Palace of Memory I’d be building the world’s worst sandcastle on the beach in Balboa as my father and uncle tossed a football back and forth on the hot sand. I’d be waking up in the back seat of our 1951 Chevy and seeing my grandparents’ faces pressed against the glass as the first snowflakes I’d ever seen fell softly behind them in the twilight. I’d be with my first wife on my wedding night at the Pierre Hotel in New York City. I’d be at my book-editing job on the better days. I’d be in a taxi in New York going downtown to Studio 54 at three in the morning making all the lights. I’d go back to a warm field in a California twilight and listen to the breath and laughter of a young girl heard once and never again. I’d sit in the sun in front of a rose-covered cottage in Big Sur. I’d be laughing on the Spanish Stairs in Rome or weaving drunk along a cliff road on the Greek island of Hydra under a bronze moon and above a wine-dark sea. I’d be high up in a hotel in Paris looking down at the Seine in the rain. I’d hold my one-year-old daughter over my head while lying on the grass in the Boston Public gardens in the spring and see her face framed with cherry blossoms.
All those and a thousand other rooms in my Palace of Memory I’d visit over and over again until they all ran together in a blur as the train of my life, accelerating, finally left the station and leapt towards the stars and beyond and, finally forgetting all of that, I saw for a fleeting moment the mystery complete.
More than anything else, I would not be in that brick-walled room in the old folks’ home any more than I absolutely had to.
I like to think that is what is going on in the soul of my uncle. It’s not only “pretty to think so,” but it has the added advantage of possibly being true. Because he is not always “away.” He will come out into the present if the moment is right.
When my mother came in to see him the first time and said, “Mac, it’s your sister, Lois,” he said, without a pause, “Oh, my irritating little sister. How are you doing?” What followed was a pretty lively back and forth until he tired and left again before being wheeled downstairs for his lunch purees.
Then, a few days later, at the hundredth birthday party his family had arranged, the special presentation involved about thirty Barbershop Quartet singers. Both he and my uncle had been half of a barbershop quartet for decades and every Barbershopper for miles around showed up to honor both of them who sat in the front and listened to a cascade of songs.
At the end, of course, the singers launched into “Happy Birthday” which was taken up by the 150 other friends and family at the party. The last extended “Youuuuu…” faded and in the moment of silence that came after, my uncle opened his eyes and in a clear strong voice sang, on key, “Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.”
Then he closed his eyes and left again taking with him, I hope, one last room to add to his Palace of Memory.
[First published June 24, 2009. Arthur Warner McNair passed peacefully in his sleep in his 100th year on October 8, 2009]