I have always wanted a pug and now I can’t have one, because buying a puppy when you are too old to take it for walks is unfair.
Brought up with dogs, I am baffled by those who dislike them. They have been domesticated for so long that cohabiting with us is as natural to them as the jungle is to the tiger. They have become the only animal whose emotions we can truly penetrate: emotions resembling our own excepting in their simplicity. When a dog is anxious, angry, hungry, puzzled, happy, loving, it allows us to see in their purest form states which we ourselves know, though in us they are distorted by the complex accretions of humanity. Dogs and humans recognize each other at a deep and uncomplicated level.
I had seen only one dead person – and what a ridiculous state of affairs that was: that a woman in her seventies should have seen only one cadaver! Surely there has never been a taboo more senseless than our modern one on death.
My brother, who died last year, was less lucky, but not because he was painfully ill for a long time, or afraid of death. His trouble was he resented it because he loved his life so passionately.
Fortunately if the prospect is bleak enough the mind jibs at dwelling on it. It’s not a matter of choosing not to think about it, more of not being able to do so. Whatever happens, I will get through it somehow, so why fuss? Now that I have attempted to assess my own attitude, that seems to be it.
We tend to become convinced that everything is getting worse simply because within our own boundaries things are doing so. We are becoming less able to do things we would like to do, can hear less, see less, eat less, hurt more, our friends die, we know that we ourselves will soon be dead… It’s not surprising, perhaps, that we easily slide into a general pessimism about life, but it is very boring and it makes dreary last years even drearier.
Because not everyone ages at the same rate, it is probable that eventually most people will either have to do some caring, or be cared for, and although the former must be preferable to the latter, I don’t think I am unusual in having failed to understand in advance that even the preferable alternative is far from enjoyable. Or perhaps that is just my reaction to it. There certainly are unselfish people with a bent for caring to whom is seems to come more naturally.
Our life went back to being, in about equal parts, both sad and boring. What, I sometimes ask, keeps me and, I am sure, innumerable other old spouses or spouselike people in similar situations, going through the motions of care? The only answer I can produce appears in the shape of a metaphor: in a plant there is no apparent similarity between its roots and whatever flower or fruit appears on the top of its stem, but they are both part of the same thing, and it seems to me that obligations which have grown out of love, however little they resemble what they grew out of, are also part of the same thing. How, if that were not so, could they be so effortlessly binding in spite of being so unwelcome? One doesn’t, in these situations, make a choice between alternatives because there doesn’t seem to be an alternative. Perhaps a wonderfully unselfish person (and they do exist) gets satisfaction from making a good a job out of it. If you are selfish one, you manage by contriving as many escapes and compensations as you can while still staying on the job. It is not an admirable solution, but I don’t suppose I am the only old person to resort to it.
That was the first gain from being old. The second was that none of it mattered at the deepest level, so that all of it could be taken lightly. When you are young a great deal of what you are is created by how you are seen by others, and this often continues to be true even into middle age.
In my eighties that couldn’t happen, no event could be crucial to my self-esteem in quite that way anymore, and that was strangely liberating. It meant some sort of loss, I suppose, such as the end of thrilling possibilities; but it allowed experiences to be enjoyable in an uncomplicated way – to be simply fun.
So there are two major regrets, after all: that nub of coldness at the centre, and laziness (I think laziness played a greater part than cowardice in my lack of initiative, though some cowardice there was). They are real, but I can’t claim that they torment me, or even that I shall often think about them.