Today’s blog post title (but for the question mark) is taken verbatim from a New York Times Op-Ed piece published about ten days ago by attorney and novelist, Louis Begley, age 78. You should go read it now and then come back here. But if not, here are some salient quotations:
”Especially during [my mother’s] long widowhood, I feared that unimpeded she would invade my life, the life she had saved. I remained a dutiful son, watching over her needs, but was at first unwilling and later unable to be tender.
“My abhorrence of the ravages and suffering inflicted on the body by age and illness, which predates my mother’s decline in her last years, is no doubt linked to there being no examples of a happy old age in my family.”
Begley goes on to describe a wretched old age of his mother (although there is no way to know if that was her perception too) which, he admits, he did little to alleviate:
”She had loved sitting on a Central Park bench and putting her face in the sun. That humble pleasure was also abandoned; she couldn’t get the hang of using a walker.”
Referring to the protagonist of his novel, About Schmidt, which was made into a film starring Jack Nicholson, and the two Schmidt sequels, Begley writes in his Op-Ed:
”…the reflection of his face in the window of a shop is frightening: he sees a red nose and bloodshot eyes, lips pursed up tight over stained and uneven teeth, an expression so lugubrious and so pained it resists his efforts to smile.
“My appreciation of my own charms is not very different. Like Schmidt, I see that nothing good awaits me at the end of the road…”
Reading Begley’s essay half a dozen times slowly and carefully, I tried to understand this man’s self-described “bitterness and anguish” at old age. At first I could only pity him and then I became angry.
Taking nothing away from what must undoubtedly be his own perseverance and talent, Begley has lived a life of extraordinary good fortune: a mother who protected him from a Nazi death camp; survival and reunion with his father after the war; immigration to the United States; a Harvard education; successful law career along with international literary acclaim. Not to mention his own family and children, all of whom are accomplished and successful.
I find it distasteful and offensive for someone with so many advantages to complain about what appears to be, so far, a comfortable old age.
And I find it equally distasteful and offensive that The New York Times editorial board highlights the story of a selfish, bitter old man when there are so many others from less advantaged elders who struggle on through whatever infirmities are inflicted upon them with courage and grace.
UPDATE: After writing this on Sunday, there turned up on Monday these four letters to the editor of The New York Times from readers who also disagree with Begley. I particularly like this from Howard Fillit who is a geriatrician and director of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation:
”Old age should never be measured by the metrics of youth. An adaptive rather than a maladaptive response to old age and even frailty is possible. Personally, I hope one day to be 95, and in love with a beautiful woman my own age.”
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Joanne Zimmermann: My Statute of Limitations