Thursday, 05 July 2012
ELDER PROSE INTERLUDE: My Twice-Lived LifeBy Donald M. Murray
“My fear of aging was not loneliness but bingo. I was terrified of the loss of aloneness, of being driven to a senior center where I would confront a huge jigsaw puzzle, a class in square dancing, and find myself taking part in a community sing: 'Just a song at twilight - '.
“I celebrate the aloneness of age. I like being alone with Minnie Mae and I like being alone with myself. Looking back, I am grateful for the sickly, lonely only-child-life that forced me to explore solitude, to discover how to live within my own mind, encountering worlds far greater than the horizons I could see. As I have aged, I have spent more and more time alone, and that is one of the reasons these years have been the best of my life.
“I sit in a restaurant across from Minnie Mae and study an elderly couple who have not spoken since they ordered. They seem strangely content with having nothing to say. There is no sign of tension between them. It is as if all has been said, shared, resolved, understood. They seem happy to be alone together.
“I remember how I scorned such couples when I was young. I thought how awful it would be to become them and realize that the waitress is picking up our dishes, packing our leftover liver and onions into a doggie bag for us who have no dog, that we have eaten dinner without speaking. We are also one of those old married couples who eat wrapped in companionable silence, content to be together without speaking.”
“As we age we talk more freely about death than our children want us to. We may say who should inherit what, what kind of service we want, where we keep the living will, and how we do not want to be kept alive as a vegetable. I say I refuse especially to be broccoli, in an effort to lighten the topic. It doesn't.
“But please allow us, children, to talk about what makes you uncomfortable. It is one way we deal with the inevitable. We need to talk about our not wanting to end up in a nursing home, whether we want cremation or burial, when to pull the plug. Denial works only so far, then reality, usually in what happens to friends or neighbors of our age – or younger – strips away the illusion of immortality.”
“When the young politely look away from the old lady with the three-pronged cane, the man in the wheelchair, the woman with the walker in the doctor's waiting room, the radiation center, at the drug store, in the restaurant, I look them in the eye and speak.
“We are comrades in the battle to survive. The response is usually surprise, followed by pleasure. They are suddenly individuals again, not a category. We share a wry smile, an ironic look, sometimes a touch, usually a line or two of black humor, 'Oh, to be seventy again.'
"These momentary encounters remind me of the wartime conversations I had with my comrades on the troop train, shipboard, or in a foxhole. We shared a companionship of common terror with a black humor, and I often find myself today trying a similar tactic with comrades heading toward the battles of aging. 'I'm in good shape for the shape I'm in.'”
Just a short while before he died in 2006, Donald M. Murray wrote in his Boston Globe “Now and Then” column:
"Each time I sit down to write I don't know if I can do it. The flow of writing is always a surprise and a challenge. Click the computer on and I am 17 again, wanting to write and not knowing if I can.”
Murray's motto was nulla dies sine linea which translates to “never a day without a line” and he arose every day at 5:30AM to start writing.
He was born in 1924, and won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing at the Boston Herald before he was 30. He taught writing for 24 years at the University of New Hampshire while turning out more than 20 books, many of them about how to write.
Although he had begun his weekly “Now and Then” column in 1986, I didn't discover Murray until 2004, and I am so sorry I missed all those previous years reading him. His books, however, make up for it.
The one from which today's quotations are taken, published in 2001, is subtitled, “A Memoir.” I like the subtitle on the first edition dust jacket better, “A Memoir of Aging,” and that it certainly is, weaving together observations of his later years and those of earlier events with fierce candor and eloquence.
There is will be more quotations from Murray's memoir in future posts in this series.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: For Real – Part 1