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Death Comes As A Shock

Frans Francken
Wikimedia Commons

Hello, Radio Readers. I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City, Kansas.  I’ve been thinking about the memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

I’ve been thinking,  of all the many ideas that Roz Chast shares of her parents’ aging and death, one idea that I keep mulling is that aging and death sneak up on us, tip-toe from behind, tap us on our shoulders, catch us unaware.

From her early middle age on, my mother used to say, “Oh, the aging process” – when she gained, or lost, a few pounds, when she forgot a name, mislaid an object, or grew weary when she thought she shouldn’t: “Oh, the aging process!” 

My mother aged graciously, letting her thick hair go gray, making her funeral and burial arrangements well in advance, partly to spare my sister and me, she claimed, but I think too so that it would be as she wanted. My father died as if he’d not expected ever to die, working in his shop until the morning he couldn’t pull himself up from bed and then died a week or two later in that same bed.

In aging and in dying, I’m not sure which of my parents I’ll be most like.  Given my surprise each time I hear, again, the music that rocked me and the movies that moved me when I was in college referred to as “classic” or “oldies,” I’m thinking that old age and death will somehow come as a shock. 

I’m not exactly like those classmates of mine who post on social media their newest and eye-raising power yoga poses or their triumphs on the runners’ circuits (and yes, I do know all about age brackets).  On the other hand, I’m not yet preparing my home, as are my sister and her husband, for the day when climbing and descending stairs is no longer in my skill set.

And while  I’ve been supportive and cheerful of colleagues who’ve retired (and not all of them early), I’m still disbelieving that my retirement year will arrive in less than a decade.  Sometimes I do wonder if there will be social programs – not just the state and federal pensions each of us may be expecting—but programs to help me through my aging, and dying, and death. 

Sometimes I imagine which niece or nephew, or neighborhood good soul, will step up to tell me I’m decrepit and in need of help.  Who will help me to what in my family we call the old folks’ home, and what Chast in her memoir calls “The Place”?   Will I be expected to stay in my own home with robots to vacuum and prepare my meals?  What will I do with all my time?

Believe it or not, the Victorian poet Lord Alfred Tennyson has given me some ways to consider these questions, not in any practical, process-oriented step-by-step kind of way, but in a more significant way. In his poem “Ulysses,” Tennyson imagines the wily explorer home, Ulysses acknowledges his son’s due but asserts his own right of being.  I’m old, and much changed, he says, but even so, I have a purpose. I am, Tennyson’s Ulysses says,

“Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

I’ve always found those final lines inspiring, encouraging, this old warrior, refusing to retreat, to retire, instead of rallying himself onward, to do what he knows he is meant to do. At the same time, these being the last two lines of the poem, I’m left to wonder, well, what happens next? Does Ulysses stay or does he go?  Does he have the mettle (that is, the muscle mass) to match his will? Or does he not?

For HPPR Radio Readers, I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City KS, wishing you all the mettle and will you need and to be as unyielding in your old age as you want.