“This Old Man,” by Roger Angell, The New Yorker, February 17 & 24, 2014.
He is a scion of literary royalty. His mother, Katharine Sergeant Angell White, a Bryn Mawr graduate, was the head fiction editor at The New Yorker in its early heyday. James Thurber described her as “the fountain and shrine of The New Yorker.” Angell’s step-father was E. B. White (see the posting of 11/19/2012 on the grammar handbook “Strunk & White.”)
Angell is now 93 years old, and he describes what life is like at his age—interesting because that age is not far off for most of us in the class of 1954, existentially, if not exactly chronologically.
He begins by quickly and matter-of-factually checking off his medical problems: macular degeneration, arthritis in his hands, stents propping open his arteries, and a herniated disk operation that lowered his height by 3 inches. None of these are unexpected in a man in his 90s, but they all developed during his 80s which still lies ahead for most of us.
Decline and disaster impend, but my thoughts don’t linger there. It shouldn’t surprise me if at this time next week I’m surrounded by family, gathered on short notice—they’re sad and shocked but also a little pissed off to be here—to help decide, after what’s happened, what’s to be done with me now. It must be this hovering knowledge, that two-ton safe swaying on a frayed rope just over my head, that makes everyone so glad to see me again. “How great you’re looking! Wow, tell me your secret!” they kindly cry when they happen upon me . . . while a little balloon over their heads reads, “Holy shit—he’s still vertical.”
His memory and mind are holding up, at least passably so:
My conversation may be full of holes and pauses, but I’ve learned to dispatch a private Apache scout ahead into the next sentence, the one coming up, to see if there are any vacant names or verbs in the landscape up there. If he sends back a warning, I’ll pause meaningfully, duh, until something else comes to mind.
He talks about his second wife of 46 years who died a few years earlier (another problem in his 80s, and one reviewed in the popular posting here of 11/15/2012, Over the Wall), but he mostly seems to miss a pet fox terrier who became unhinged during a summer thunderstorm and jumped to his death from an open window in their city apartment. “The pains and insults are bearable,” he tells us, although, “the downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news.” Two months before his dog died, his adult daughter committed suicide.
He quotes Casey Stengel, who said at age 75 (younger than I am now), “Most of the people my age is dead. You could look it up.” Angell elaborates:
We geezers carry about a bulging directory of dead husbands or wives, children, parents, lovers, brothers and sisters, dentists and shrinks, all once entirely familiar to us and seen as part of the landscape of the day. It’s no wonder we’re a bit bent. The surprise, for me, is that the accruing weight of these departures doesn’t bury us, and that even the pain of an almost unbearable loss gives way quite quickly to something more distant but still stubbornly gleaming. The dead have departed, but gestures and glances and tones of voice of theirs . . . reappear unexpectedly, along with touches of sweetness or irritation: my sister, Nancy, stunning at 17, . . . my mother laughing and ducking out of the picture again—she’s about 35. Me, sitting under a Ping-Pong table, at 11.
Anyone over 60 knows this; my list is only longer. I don’t go there often, but, once I start, the battalion of the dead is on duty, alertly waiting. Why do they sustain me so, cheer me up, remind me of life? I don’t understand this. Why am I not endlessly grieving?
Perhaps all of this is depressing for you, but I find it encouraging. Thanks for the heads-up, Roger, from one Roger to another, one old man to another.