In a short essay titled “Age and Its Awful Discontents,” novelist and lawyer Louis Begley describes his mother’s and his own long lives, the early years forged in the hell of German-occupied Poland in World War II, the later ones in comfortable New York City apartments. Begley acknowledges his “abhorrence” of the physical ravages of age and illness and the fact that the aversion predates his mother’s decline in her last years. He attributes it to a dearth of examples of a happy old age — examples lacking not because family members aged badly but because all died young and violently during the war. “Unsurprisingly, dread of the games time plays with us has been a drumbeat in my novels,” he explains.
Begley’s truth is of course his own, but this seems to me a story of the games that history plays with us, not age. The “awful discontents” of his and his mother’s later years pale beside the privations they endured during the war and its aftermath. Visited daily by her family, Begley’s mother lived to 94, “comfortably but alone” after outliving husband and friends, too proud to use a wheelchair for concert- and movie-going, homebound because she “couldn’t get the hang of using a walker.” It is sad to outlive your friends, but it is not tragic. It is wretched to be homebound, but she rejected the technologies that might have rescued her. She had her reasons. That was her truth, at least as seen through her son’s eyes: an agonizing passage that he assumes awaits him as well.
“Yet my body . . . continues to be a good sport,” Begley observes, at 78 suffering from nothing that a steroid shot doesn’t remedy. Add wife and children and financial security and engaging work and healthy brain to the mix, and I arrive not at a roster of the “awful discontents” of age but at something close to their opposite.
The fact that that’s not how Begley sees it is partly a function of his nature and his personal history. It also reflects the way our society embraces decline as the default narrative for late life, even in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. Consider the stock photo the New York Times picked to accompany the story: shot from behind, a white-haired, slightly stooped woman strolls alone in a park, eyes on the sun-dappled path ahead. It’s clearly intended to evoke “the bitterness and anguish of my mother’s solitude” that Begley invokes in conclusion. Is the woman in the photograph lonely, or simply alone? Depressed, or deep in thought? No telling. She’s a blank slate on which to project our hopes as well as our fears. Other than the sensible shoes, which I suppose await in my closet as well, she looks damn good to me.