Category: On aging

Notes from a window

I do not know her, the old lady at the window. But, she is familiar to me. I see her almost every day when I approach the cross section. I look for oncoming traffic, then look for her. It has become a habit. She is consistent (a necessary requirement for a habit to form). I do not know if her looking out of the window is the result of habit or the lack of alternatives. She sits to the right of her window. (would it alter the narrative if I called it the window?) So, now I have designated the window as hers. Naturally, she does not own the window. Ownership in old-age homes are a complicated business. Usually it is strictly limited to private possessions: blankets, clothing, books, toiletries, jewellery, false-teeth. Unlike their owners, these items retain value. They are handled with tenderness, treasure-like, as if the care shown them might somehow reach the dead. Perhaps we treat their things as sacred in the hope that these gentle gestures might have retrospective powers. Maybe kindness in the present has currency in the after-life. Nevertheless, domestic rituals emerge around the debris of life. Clothing and blankets are held up to the face, breathed in to detect traces of the dead. Unopened cakes of soap sit in drawers scenting underwear, rosaries gather friction, grief adheres to old toothbrushes, broken spectacles, roughly scribbled champagne corks and postcards from Egypt written in illegibly elegant script. The physical disappearance of someone is shocking. These objects absorb the after shocks of their leaving. As for the places where they lived; in old age homes a bucket of disinfectant, wide open windows to release the miasma of death and a lick of paint re-sanitise the venue for the next itinerant. Ownership may be complex in old age homes, but the simple certainties of death and departure compensate for it. I do not know the contractual details of her facility. I know there are places like these where inmates are expected to purchase a space that is recycled every time the current owner/s die. A safe investment that just keeps giving.

In First World countries we tend to pack the aged and infirm away when their maintenance outweighs their value. One must contribute positively to the GDP to warrant state concern. Otherwise, one finds oneself gradually removed from society. Folded up like well worn tablecloths and placed in the back of the linen cupboard, until the next Salvo’s run. In Third World economies, the aged are generally valued and, if not valued, at least respected. Those who struggle for material security understand the emotional and spiritual value of people. They know that dignity is priceless and owed to their parents who have struggled to hold onto it all of their lives. The aged are respected for being there, for having carried on, teaching their children that value lies in endurance, not assets. They build their lives on people, not money. They have community where individual well-being is everyone’s concern. We, on the other hand, are a loose collection of cocoons. Each of us spinning silk and blind to the world around us.

I knew a man once who did a brave thing. I did not understand it as such at the time. I was young and had not yet been called upon to endure anything more than my adolescent neuroses. He lived on a large piece of land. We flew over it once in a small plane. We had travelled in a straight line for ten minutes and all the time it was his land beneath us. It was beautiful, rugged, arid African Bush. The memory of it fills me with nostalgia. In the evenings Impala herds settled around a thorn tree near the home. He had resettled vultures that were endangered. One day he walked out into the bush, undressed and then shot himself in a place where he knew the vultures would be. I believe he was a brave man. In the end he understood a thing or two about real value.

She, the lady at the window, has draped over her knees a crocheted patchwork blanket. Coloured squares of lilac, blue, purple and pink are bordered by yellow. The palette of severe bruising. I’ve not seen her do anything but sit and look out of the window. I have willed her to lean forward, possibly smile but it feels like a prayer, more for my sake than hers.

Her curtains were drawn today. If tomorrow the windows are open wide, I will be sad.

A mind in iron

Here is the great mystery of life: it ends.

So there I was …  am? I have no memory of my origin, only of being and it seems that I have always been. I feel that I have been here forever. Certainly, I am not as I was before, or will be. The ‘I’ who speaks now feels infinitely connected with everything that was here, is here or will be here. Something galvanises me to pronounce that this has always been the case. Still, there is a morbid tendency under current circumstances to contemplate ‘not’ being. This is unsettling. It is contrary to the nature of existence. It is traumatic and I fear this only hastens corrosion. I cannot fathom that in the course of my existence change has been so brutal, so sudden and yet always anticipated. I am all contradiction now. Resigned and angry, holding on and letting go. Time confounds the mind. A degree of material degeneration is expected, annihilation is altogether another matter. Consciousness feels ageless, an elegant sensitivity held hostage by imperfect design; a rotten receptacle. In every sense it is a degrading process. Before this moment, yesterday or last year or thirty years ago I was different. I am not sure when ‘before’ is or was? What has changed?

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There has been some … rearrangement, shall we say. When does one begin to speak of oneself in the past tense? Memory is a wicked joke. Once I was not as decayed as I appear to you now. My clean lines sliced land and sky with cold precision. Sharp angles framed vast sections of smooth steel that were caressed in places to a polish where men stood, clung as they worked, held as they smoked. Rust began slowly. It settled at first as a warm patina of benign dust that at first light cast a hazy aura of smoked auburn on my form. Beautiful but deathly, subtle as smoke. Then this. Jagged edges, broken frame, an eroding core. It crept out from the inside, was it always there? I was solid. I felt solid. I passed through decades, almost a century. I never considered time a real player in my narrative. Was I arrogant?

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Here is the surprise. I never noticed the decay until it seemed, without warning, to be everywhere. I was forever new and then I was in a heap. There were people everywhere then. Busy, busy. I was the centre of that activity.

Science softens the blow. It calls this the conservation of energy. I am undergoing my final conversion, becoming increasingly transformed. This conversion has the sense of displacement. It is a difficult conversation. So, the atoms which constitute my awareness, my consciousness … where do they go? Does it  all go back into the earth? Is this why on quiet days as the wind blows over me, I can almost feel it speak to me? In the earth around me are the voices of the previously converted; the displaced, the more thoroughly eroded ones. We should, if it is our mode, walk more gently on the ground. We are treading on those gone before us. I should have anticipated this. I did. What does one do with the knowledge that you will end? Anticipation is futile. The end comes anyway.

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Against the nihilistic current of our existence we can only do what we have always done, stand fast. Stand until we fall. Then we hope for a soft landing, perhaps an acknowledgement of our having been here at all. Even that is a vanity; new things will be built, or not. Expecting Remembrance is a vanity. Memory evades the young but takes hold for a time on the near falling ones. When I finally crumble, I hope I remember to laugh at the absurdity of the rising and falling that is existence.

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