A walk through the Sanctuary is revealing, and always surprising. In the winter I can see more clearly through the trees. The bushes, the brambles, the runaway weeds become portals through which the woodlands expose their depth and mysteries. At this angle the sunlight is apt to catch one’s breath, if not because what once was old is new again, because never so clearly are life and death so intertwined. Rot and decay sit side by side with brazen pine and impatient buds waiting for spring. Senescent branches become stepping stones and jungle gyms for wintering juncos and fox sparrow. Fallen trees stand up in the arms of those much stronger, or sink into the earth sufficiently to sprout new trunks entirely. I am not certain which is more stunning or uplifting, that which is flush with life or that whose knobs and gnarls are smoothed or broken with antiquity. There is wisdom here for the taking. And so I think…
It’s not death I fear; it’s old age. Old age seems a retreat from beauty, a march away from bold plans and risk-taking in the name of security or common sense. Old age luxuriates in routine and familiarity, its pace measured and slow, crippled by pain both real and imagined, its skin flabby, its hair thin, its muscles cramped and listless. Old age smiles through crooked teeth, speaks in wistful tones of uncertainty and forgetfulness, apologizes for bodily functions it can no longer control. Death, in such circumstances, seems an attractive alternative, a suitor whose whispering is both seductive and full of promises that cannot be broken. No more striving. No more fear. No more time wasted in moments of despair or indecisiveness when there is so much potential for joy.
In truth, however, our choices are not so limited as they seem. We do not have to go gently into that good night. If the modern world has shown us anything, it is that we can shape reality, create our own narratives and, if repeated long enough, convince others of their truth, if not ourselves. We live in the now, not in the past or the hereafter. We must accept the fact that old age is a balancing act of shadows and light.
There will be days when I don’t want to get out of bed, when I don’t want to face people, when for no apparent reason it seems safer to withdraw into a cocoon of wispy sheets and ruffled down wrapped sufficiently tight around me so that I cannot be seen or will not have to talk. The body will not ache if it does not have to move. The mind will not forget what it is not asked to recall. I will not fail at what I never begin. I can be surly, defeated, irritated and humorless, and it will not show. No one will be there to prod me into responsiveness or out of my self-absorption and delicious denial. No one will demand of me commitment or smile, struggle or cleverness. My spouse will be busy at work or chatting on the computer with the kids while I sink mercifully into oblivion.
There will be days when I find myself sitting apart, staring out of the corners of my eyes at the hurried chatter and false bravado, the trivial concerns and mindless responses, the flirtatious posturing and heavy laughter of people living life lustily and well. No need for pleasantries. No need for confidence. Only a kind of pity, and envy.
There will be days when my words will stumble over themselves and I will be too embarrassed to admit that I haven’t done my jobs fully, that I can no longer square the wood or cut the kerf cleanly enough for joinery. No longer summon the inspiration to take to task the setting of reasonable goals or plotting meaningful paths to reach them. Such empty words: goals and path and plotting. Such hollow fruit. I will feel my eyes shrinking away from contact. I will feel my spine crimping in upon itself, my posture yielding to gravity and entropy.
But, more to the point, there will be other days when I bound out of bed full of expectation and energy, sure that I can perform miracles on the golf course or in the kitchen, offer cogent insights into current events, charm young women at the help desk, challenge my grandson or granddaughters with my dexterity or regale them with tales of my past glories when all they want to do is move on. There will be days when my wife will once again look to me with longing, will flip her hair as she walks past me, confident that my eyes are following her hips at every turn, laughing playfully when I raise the hairs on her skin as I intentionally brush by her.
I will have my moments of strength and audacity when no chore is too taxing, no barrow full of stone or dirt too heavy, no pile of leaves too full for the undertaking, no repair of broken fence or cracked ceiling too repetitive or time-consuming that someone else might better be paid to do it. I will feel no stiffness, be light on my feet, run effortlessly against the wind, gulping air indulgently rather than gasping for my next breath.
I will look into the mirror and see a blush of color, a suppleness of skin, a fairness of complexion that might make me the envy of all my peers who have yielded to a gray pallor and roll of chin. My hair will retain enough shine and texture, enough dark strands, to remind me of those days when the wind blew it into place and I didn’t care to tame it except for family photos and formal gatherings.
I will feel sudden inspiration, moments of clarity, when once again I will be willing to risk creating something that others might reject as ordinary or derivative. Rain will fall from the heavens, pungent and replete with potential. Leaves will unfurl their secrets, and flowers will burst into colorful fruit. Storms will excite my imagination once again and fill me with the anticipation of no electricity, no ability to commune with the outside world, at least temporarily. A chance to pull up the covers, zip up the tent, hold off the darkness for the fun of it. And I will learn to savor these moments rather than to regret their loss, or to fear that they might never come again.