I’m only 83–my brother is 90–and I’m enumerating some losses this morning because, though I’m not really old, I do feel them. The taste of coffee is much less vibrant than it used to be, for example–probably because the aroma is gone–and these losses lead me into a thicket of diminished sense perception that I live with, but let me leap to my theme: I refuse to be unhappy, dammit! I’m only 83 and I’m just getting started, with published writing, for one thing among a million.
My brother is still painting, and he owes me a watercolor that I commissioned six months ago. But I’ll get back to my counting.
Of the born-with five senses, I have one unimpaired: touch seems normal to me. Smell is gone, and what a mixed blessing that is! When others are driven from or simply avoid some places, I’m unperturbed, complacent, happy enough where I am. Foul odors abound in the world as I remember it, but not in mine, now. But the fragrances–oh the roses, the hyacinth, the subtly seductive perfumes of all the lovely ladies–are they nothing but a memory? Truth, though realized gradually, is still truth, dammit, despite the wistful remembering that floods the mind now of scents that once could rivet my attention.
Sight, for most of us, is more correctable, and progressive, tri-focal glasses, often covered with wrap-around dark lenses to eliminate the ultra-violet destruction, go far to bring back what is not quite gone yet. For me, though, sight was not quite all there from the beginning, for I have what is misnamed red-green color blindness, misnamed because I see all the colors except certain shades of pink, and except some aspects of the splendid displays of sunsets and of the northern fall woods. I lose in a big way there, I’m told, but I do enjoy a colorful world, and Mexico, with its love of bold primary colors, is a country that serves up a daily feast.
My reading addiction is evermore the basis of my daily living. I hang onto that with my left eye, the right serving for most other sight but not reading, for a spot of gray-out from macular degeneration eliminates the printed words that no longer print themselves on my right retina. When I close the left and see how the gray spot clouds-out the face of my beloved, I become especially conscious of the third dimension, enjoying how peripheral vision in that eye combines with the reliable left one to create a world of depth.
I’ve mentioned taste, smell, touch, and sight, and what’s left is hearing, the notorious lost sense of the aged. I do hear and sometimes use a hearing aid, and I love conversation and music and the rippling of a country stream, but what’s painful sometimes is the ripping up of relationships, deep and casual, familial and loving, friendly and incidental, that being hard-of-hearing causes. Deaf is the d-word I refuse, as I reject the o-word in favor of “advanced maturity.” But to be a deaf old codger with faulty sight is the fate one must face.
But not without a bit of rage! “Do not go gentle into that good night,” Dylan Thomas told us, “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” OK, and we all remember Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra: “Grow old along with me/ The best is yet to be/ The last of life for which the first was made.” OK. Those lines suggest opposite attitudes, but I’ll try both.
Today, some of the best that’s yet to be turns up as an eclipse of the moon, when the moon is full, and at the moment of the winter solstice! I looked at 3:00 AM (this is easy for one whose enlarged prostate gland sends him to the bathroom regularly in the night–and how’s that for looking at the bright side?) The sky was darker and deeper than ever, and the brilliant stars winked with ethereal insouciance. I longed to lie on the roof and linger, but the air was wintry, and the glimpse would have to make my night. A chip of the moon shone brighter than the stars and planets, and that’s how I was able to make it out, for the first view suggested that the moon was gone. They tell me the moon looked red, but for me that’s another small loss to faulty color perception. But earth’s shadow moved on, like the clock of eternity, and one could go back to bed knowing that the bright balloon of a moon would floodlight the garden on the night to come, as usual.
Then when the beautiful Mexican day arose, the blazing sun showed up a surprising line of new Peterbilt trucks, red or white or blue, all dumping earth to fill the roadside where new lanes are being built for Ruta 2010. And though 2010 and the Bicentenario will end before this part of the ruta is finished, it’s good to see big things being done on Mexican time. As I drove on and turned a corner, I stopped abruptly in my little Chevy: Policía in an oncoming car also stopped, and as we avoided collision we smiled and nodded, and I remembered my love of the Mexican people. Another corner, later in the day, yielded a repeat of that charming moment: the oncoming driver did just as I did, stopped and smiled and nodded and steered carefully around the turn.
Another Mexican gentleman is the tailor I was heading toward, Señor Cadena, in whose shop in San Antonio his son pedals a Singer machine just like that of my grandmother, because the best control of the stitching is achieved without the drive of an electric motor. Señor Cadena, incidentally, has a wall of trophies for running, his distinction having at least two bases. I tell him that I bring my trousers for adjustment to him, knowing that el mejor sastre esta aquí, no en Nueva York, and we both smile and nod. Driving away I notice that La Iglesia San Antonio now sports nine strings, in taut diagonal lines slanting down before its façade, with fluted paper doilies ornamenting the sunshine-infused air for the holidays. The glory of Mexico lifts the heart and one believes that the best is yet to be.
At home again I realize that my beloved and I have to negotiate the matter of who will go upstairs to get whatever we want to bring down, because her knees make her reluctant to do it, and my emphysema makes it a slow job for me. It seems time for just a touch of the day’s rage quota. But I refuse to be unhappy, dammit! Yes, I’ve lost a son but keep a daughter; yes friends have died, and about some I don’t even know whether they live or are “late” as Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana folk would put it. Yes, one friend has had such a bad stroke that he’s barely recovering from partial paralysis, but recovering he is and joy is still the main fact of life.
I’ll have to telephone my brother in Florida about that watercolor, because he won’t do email anymore. He says it’s Orwellian, and he’s developed a phobia: Big Brother is the threat–and there’s a nugget of truth behind his new paranoia, but email must be held onto (it might be the only 21st-century changed-world feature I enjoy–yes, I know it began in the 20th, but it’s still very Now, isn’t it?) I must persuade him to return to email because he’s deafer than I am and on the phone he does less listening than talking. Balance must be restored. And I’ll mail him a copy of this piece and hope he doesn’t fall asleep before he’s finished reading it.
The loss I feel daily and deeply is the diminished mind. I love the New York Times crosswords, but–I have to accept it–what I’ve forgotten would fill a small library. Of course, one great consequence is that everything is fresh for me. I can re-read the whodunits: I have no clue about the outcomes I read yesteryear.
Now I have to finish this bit of typing and go into the sun to warm my fingers. As we grow older we grow colder, and Mexico’s devout disbelief in central heating sends us all to the sun.
A writer often thinks in terms of deadlines, but I am acutely conscious of just one deadline. I write and sing and go upstairs to see the moon and love Mexico and do everything against that deadline. And I obey the demand for raging, but this morning I know that I can also hold fast to the spirit of “The best is yet to be.”