“The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young.” That’s the Lord Henry Wotton character speaking in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey.
I think of my father who, as he approached ninety, insisted he felt no different than he had when he was twenty-seven. Objectively, his claim was doubtful. He walked with his six-foot frame bent over; his car was dented from any number of scrapes against his garage’s entrance; he’d forget to charge his hearing aids overnight; and each time he had a memory lapse, he’d invoke the “senior moment” mantra. But he was being truthful, as I now even better appreciate. Drifting into the final third of life, I am aware of a certain clarity, alongside an enduring interest in everything around me, that belies the increasing enfeeblement of joints and diminishing ability to summon up the right word.
The way I understand The Picture of Dorian Grey this time around, my second, is that our interior and external selves are connected as if by the flimsiest of rope bridges over a ravine. By taking on Grey’s aging process for two decades, the portrait enables Grey the man to maintain a ceaselessly youthful face, attracting favor and bespeaking a man delighted with himself. On the other side of the ravine, that ever-evolving painting, hidden away in a closet inside a locked room, depicts an increasingly “loathsome” face and “cruel smile.” In the climactic scene, Grey sees in the portrait his “conscience.”
My father was troubled by no such demons. Though he did many notably good things, it’s doubtful that he was any more of an angel than the rest of us. Had Wilde based his novel on Dad, he might have given his mouth that cruel smile in the portrait, but neither the Grey character nor the portrait would have shown signs of corruption. That’s because Dad was essentially honest, as he understood honesty, for better or worse. Moreover, even though his political views calcified into cynicism, he felt to the end nothing but optimism for himself. I imagine him sweeping his arm at the elbow, by then the only gesture this once immensely strong man could manage to encompass the world around him, when he told my brother, “I’m going to miss all this.”
Elsewhere in Dorian Grey, Lord Henry, with his tiresome penchant for epigrams, reflects that we “always misunderstood ourselves and rarely understood others.” Dad wouldn’t have flinched at that line. Not for him Socrates’ maxim, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” He felt little compulsion for introspection, but he found his life eminently worth living. His zest for life was one of the many reasons he was widely and deservedly beloved.
Why did Dad harken back to that very specific age, twenty-seven? It wasn’t a question I thought to ask while he was still with us. With his gift for numbers, he would have been drawn to the notion of three cubed. I’m enough of my father’s son to feel that same arithmetical tug. Biographically, twenty-seven put him between the Septembers in 1955 and 1956. After years of night school while working full-time day jobs, he’d just qualified as a chartered accountant (CPA in America), the first in his immediate family to break into professional ranks. I admired how he took pride in that achievement. Perhaps, too, he felt pride as the father of two infant sons, my younger brother having been born midway between those two months. By then, he’d been happily married for more than two years to the girl he’d been courting through night school. Also, it would have been at the age of twenty-seven that my parents were able to rent or buy (I’m not sure which) their own house in Newton Aycliffe, a town built right after the Second World War nearby our shared hometown, Darlington. Until then, our family had been living in the basement of the home of Mum’s parents, whom my father intensely disliked.
Twenty-seven, then, was the age when Dad had proven himself and gained his independence. How triumphant he must have felt.
Dad didn’t speak often about our Newton Aycliffe phase. The only anecdote that comes to mind is that a senior colleague urged him to cope with problems at night by tying them inside a figurative bag on his way home and hanging the bag from a tree before going into the house. True, that Dad took the advice to heart suggests he experienced stress even in that time. But when he looked back, the stress vanished, and all that remained were the treasured anecdote and the warmth he felt from his colleague.
I was offended a few years ago when a supermarket cashier alerted me I was entitled to a senior citizen discount. No doubt I was engaged in denial. Who wants to get old, or more to the point, look old? But like Dad, I don’t feel it. My bones feel it, but deeper inside, I still respond to childhood jokes and rude noises—more so than when I was a boy. I’m still thinking forward about my projects. I still get frustrated with myself each time I do something stupid. At the same time, I’m not assailed as often as I once was by self-doubt. I’m reconciled to being less than perfect, while still determined to come as close as I can to getting things right.
There’s a lot to be said for the state of mind celebrated in the Frank Sinatra song, “Young at Heart”:
And if you should survive to a 105
Look at all you’ll derive out of being alive
And here is the best part, you’ve had a head start
If you are among the very young at heart
—Carolyn Leigh (1953)
Unfortunately, as we close in on 105, color-drained and thinning hair, wrinkles and lines tell the world that the interior self is also breaking down. But that isn’t how elderly people experience it. When a chronologically young person encounters a doddering old fool, what they really see is a disintegrating husk around a still vibrant spirit. That husk serves to distance the elderly from the rest of the world, the tragedy Lord Henry identified. Maybe it’s nature’s way of giving the elderly some space, even if they don’t want it, so that they might continue their many-splendored journeys in peace. Or maybe it’s nature insisting, as usual, on having the last laugh.