To Age Alone Gracefully, or Die Mercifully?

On my block at 101st Street on the Upper West Side there is a low iron fence, a series of uneven upside-down U shapes around a skinny runt of a tree that stands in a patch of stone and pebble-sprinkled dirt. At one end of the rectangle formed by the fence, a single black-eyed Susan, with its yellow petals and its dark center, a thyroid bulging eye, stands on a thin stem, pale green, seemingly unable to bear the weight of the flower’s head, which bends to one side or another. Dogs would like to get in the dirt and relieve themselves. Little dogs can’t. Their legs are too short. Big dogs can, and do frequently. But each time I pass, the flower is still there. A sign of spring, you might say. But I don’t think so. It’s rather early for the change. More likely, this is a flower that misunderstood the one brief hour of warm sun and bloomed, pushing itself upwards into the cold howl of wind that still blows off the river and whips around West End Avenue, making it hard for a passer-by to catch a breath, hold onto a hat, keep identity together and fingers warm.

So far, no one has plucked this flower. So far, no others have come to join it. This is a sad-sack Jules Feiffer flower pretending to be a dancer welcoming the new season. This is a homeless single flower that Mayor Giuliani would put into a shelter and make work for a living. Something, perhaps, the Human Resources Administration has taken a few petals from already. This is not a flower that a religious person would be tempted to write a poem about, no glory of God reflected in its shabby, tilting macrocephalic head. No little prince will develop a crush on this flower; no rose, she. It is not a sign of the persistence of nature in the midst of man’s heavy cement dreams. It is simply without metaphor, barely itself, bruised, short-lived, a flower, an accidental spill of yellow in the March morning.

Which brings me to the old lady on the corner who died at age 98 the other day. We smiled as I passed by. In winter, she was bundled in her coat, her eyes watered, but she seemed glad to see me. In summer, she wore a silk shawl over her shoulders and her hands trembled in her lap, but she blushed when I would stop to talk. Her caretaker stood behind her wheelchair, expressionless, silent. What I am thinking of is an old woman who lived with the usual loss of acuity, purpose and friends and woke alone in a comfortable place for many, many mornings. I am thinking that her children and grandchildren have warm memories of her. Her life was as a woman’s life used to be: supported and kindled by the care of those she cared for as best she could in her youth. There was finally, in the last years, a sweetness about her, a bleached-out gentleness, a frail but persistent life that might easily have been uprooted long ago but wasn’t.

This is strength of a kind. This is the determination to live beyond one’s bouncing vitality. This long life was not egged on by curiosity about the future (this woman had aged beyond that), but the persistence was without doubt a kind of biological dignity. The bed, the television, the knitting, the walk about the room, the eating, the sleeping, the simplicity of things, as if she were a hermit in a cave on a mountaintop, as if she were a rock in the riverbed, the simplicity had a beauty of its own. Like my flower, I suppose.

Before I heard all the stories of my friends taking care of ancient loved ones, I thought I might, like Dylan Thomas, not go gently into that good night, but on second thought I think it more gracious to leave in time, on time, in your season, not out of it. I do not want to live to 95, I think. I am too restless for the limits of an aged mind. I am too irritated by TV commercials to spend my days before the passing images of cars I will not own. The soaps make me despair. The talk shows make me grind my teeth, and will even if my teeth are false. I do not want to be alone, limping on past my friends, out of season, out of step, my clothes the wrong style and my head filled with battles long gone. I do not mind losing whatever beauty I once had, but I do mind, I would mind, the stillness of the bedroom, the idleness of the days, the time dripping by. I think.

I would not want to be a burden, a worry, a problem for those whom I had worried over at the proper moment. (All right, a little longer than the proper moment, I admit it.) I would like to take a train out of town and disappear in a cloud, leaving behind my few possessions to be divvied up by my heirs. I would like to be like the old women in certain rural places in Japan who, when a grandchild needs their portion of food, go up to the mountaintop and wait for death beneath the snowdrifts. I would like to fold my tent and silently slip away. Or so I imagine before the need, before the deed must be done.

My own mother died young. I have already had many more years on earth, more birthdays, than she. When she died, I was stunned at how quickly we put away her clothes and gave them to a thrift shop. Her linen and silver disappeared. I pawned her fur coat out of principle (don’t ask). The footstep she left behind was my foot. Now I count each year as a stolen one, a blessing granted by an Undependable, Frequently Unkind Dispenser of Breath. But I have heard stories of feeding tubes inserted in unwilling aged bodies. I have heard of machines that pump oxygen in reluctant lungs. I have seen the frail leaning on the arms of their caretakers, sitting in wheelchairs, catching a moment of warming sun while mothers with their strollers rush past on their way to nursery schools, to markets, to jobs. Not me, not me, I have sworn. But do I mean it? Do I really mean it?

Is it possible that my head could provide all the gentleman callers I would need? Perhaps my fantasy life would be sufficient? Perhaps, like the flower on 101st Street, I could exist without itching or ranting or bothering others with my views, my needs, my plans for them or for myself. Perhaps I would find a way, out of season or not, to just hang in and let the world pass by. I would sleep a lot and dream, and if I had nightmares, well, that could provide sufficient excitement. Maybe.

To Age Alone Gracefully, or Die Mercifully?