In Defence of 'Old Age'
What’s to know about life?
We arrive ‘mewling and puking in our mothers’ arms’, (according to the Bard); we crawl to our choices and decisions; hopefully stay alive, well and happy in spite of, or because of them… and shuffle our way towards our final wave goodbye.
What’s not to love?
I hadn’t really thought about old age until recently... yesterday, to be precise:
“How old are you?” asked the child on the street as I passed her by.
“Now let me see” I replied, “I’m seventy five but soon I’ll be…
“Seventy six” she pronounced solemnly, and with the piercing observation of youth, went on:
“Does that mean you’re going to die soon?”
Without even allowing the tiniest gasp to escape from my already tightening throat, I continued bravely.
“Of course not… I’m not even old yet!” She looked at me, quizzically, summing me up.
“You look old... so when will you be old?” I had to think.
“I’ll let you know... next time I see you, promise” I said with a wan smile and marched off rather faster than befitted my new status.
Once home, of course I reached out for my old pal Shakespeare and his familiar 7 Ages of Man… where each ‘age’ plays a part. It’s a melancholy piece and was no comfort at all - each age dragging ominously into the next with no clear guidance as to when one should start and another finish. No comfort to know that eventually one’s voice would ‘whistle in his sound’ before ‘second childishness’ took over and then ‘mere oblivion. Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.’
I don’t remember the first age, no matter how many uncles told me I was a cute baby and my life seems to have been an endless replaying of the 2nd, the age of childhood - at least in spirit if not in actions!
But I do remember the disappointment of expectation as I entered my teens.
Waking up on my 13th birthday I steadied myself, sat rigidly upright in bed and waited for the explosion that I’d been assured by well-meaning friends was about to hit. But nothing happened. Nothing had changed. Nil. Zippo. And I instantly became very suspicious of numbers and advice and resolved to be governed by feel... not by man-made time!
Still with no clear answer for my new little friend as to when I should see myself as old, I turned to the 2011 Census where 3 million people resident in Australia were classified as ‘older’. I certainly became much better informed reading its 5year groupings and classifications: race, ethnicity, religion, culture, gender, education, marital status, death rates and disability but I have to say I was no better placed to give an answer.
Turning to news reports in both print and digital media, I gathered an image of old age which - in spite of its extraordinary diversity and circumstances - seemed to revolve around grey hair, slowness of gait & behind the wheel and… wait for it… Bingo!
Suddenly I could see a Courtroom.
“Next case” yells the Bench Clerk and a Big Square Grey Metal Box shuffles to the Stand. It’s labelled and where a label’s fallen off one can see cruel names etched deep into its very side. Parts of the Box are sparkly bright, others rusty, worn; mould-like disease has gathered in one corner and one foot moves much faster than the other.
“Name?” says the Magistrate.
“Old Age” the Box replies.
“What’s your business here?"
“A Judicial Review of my Status, m’Lud."
“How old are you?” the Magistrate barks.
“I don’t know, Sir… not sure when I came into being!"
“Then I’d say you’re VERY old.”
The Box looks up defiantly.
“You are young, Sir… how can you possibly know what I am like or what I can do, not ever having visited? Come look inside!”
And sure enough, as he stared into that Big Grey Square Metal Box, the Magistrate saw something so overwhelmingly powerful, so undeniably real that he stepped back, shaken and astonished. For here were stories; stories heroic, tragic, comical, devastatingly beautiful and sad; stories that covered lifetimes of loneliness, passion, rejection, sacrifice and pain; stories so joyful yet some so cruel and stark, some so full of mistakes that all the accumulated wisdom and accomplishment could barely make amends: so many stories; yet not one the same. And it was for this very uniqueness that the Magistrate returned slowly, thoughtfully to his Bench.
“I see the wisdom in your words... it calls for no reflection here: I award your Right to Review. Let us challenge the passing of man-made time! Release the shackles!"
Then turning to all present he wove a childhood vow into the spoken word:
“Judge not the holders of these stories in the closing chapters of their lives. Send them not away as if to feel ashamed of passing years and all they did therein. Encourage them in all they seek to do in waning time and let them skip or linger as nature will allow. Cherish their worth… then let them go… warmth and affection ringing in their ears for a job done as best as they knew how. And celebrate them… for all their differences… as those before them, with such expectation, welcomed them.”
And with that same warmth and affection and the resolution of my 13th birthday soaring through my heart, I sought out my little friend on the street.
“I’ve an answer for you” I blurted out excitedly.
Her eyes widened.
“You know when you’re going to be old?”
And I smiled.
“No, dear child, that, I'll probably never know! But as long as you take care of this" I answered, handing her a small grey, metal box "my ‘knowing’… doesn’t matter at all.”