Preparing for old age is the scariest thing I have ever done in my life.
Scarier than gliding. Scarier than windsurfing in a gale. Scarier than reading poems to an audience of 2000. Scarier than reading poems to the Empress of Japan. Scarier than dancing on stage for the first time at the age of 66.
Scarier than preparing to have a baby far away from my family, pre-email, pre-Skype.
Old age is sort of like pregnancy
When I was pregnant far from home and family, I feared the unknown. Feared it very much. I found my own solution when I borrowed an illustrated textbook for nurses on obstetrics and mulled over every page. That’s when I discovered that I’m a Stoic, a worst-scenario kind of gal. I would study each case history, complete with sometimes terrifying photographs and ask myself, could I bear this? Or this? Or this? The climax: visualising the midwife crushing my baby’s head before it was born, because it was my life or nobody’s. Could I bear even this?
When I closed the book, I felt calm and confident. My jitters were banished by knowledge.
In some ways, I’m in a similar situation now, ignorant about what old age may entail, afraid of the unknown. So now I’m reading everything in sight and sucking up information about growing old and dying. And, as with pregnancy, I’m talking about this.
And there the similarity ends.
Being old is not like being pregnant
Because nobody says to me, “Oh how lovely, so you are getting old! And is this your first old age? When is it due? So you are going to write about old age and dying—I’m so happy for you! Congratulations! And you are going to carry on and on about it for an entire year? You plan to blog about it, write a book about it? And then you’ll die! Wonderful. I can't wait.”
On the contrary, this is what they say.
“Why?” “Try homeopathy, then you mightn't feel so old.” “You're only as young as you feel.” “I don't want to live that long. I couldn't bear it. I'd rather be run over by a bus.”
Or there’s a deadly silence. Or a quick change of subject.
Underneath, I hear the message, “I don't want to think about that.” And I sympathise. Of course I don't want to think about it either. But hey, I'm a writer, and that's what writers do when we get a bee in our bonnet.
So why is this project so scary?
Because I will (most probably) get old, and old age is not for sissies. And then I’ll die.
I have changed my attitude to dying from when I was a kid. At seven years old I horrified my mother by saying, “I can't wait to die! It’ll be so exciting to see what happens!” I saw death as a fascinating mystery.
Now, at this moment, I am perfectly willing to wait. I'm absolutely in no hurry. I believe the process is pretty awful for most, and when the time comes I won’t necessarily find it fascinating. While curiosity is intrinsic to every writer’s character, I expect to be well beyond curiosity at the point of death.
But who knows?