I’ve been floated up to the geriatric psych ward and I’m not happy. When I was younger I didn’t sweat working with old people. Back then old age and death seemed impossibly far away. Now, with my fiftieth birthday in sight, the demented elderly chattering around me are a reminder that the clock is ticking.
“I’m looking for my keys,” a woman says to me, her voice quavering. “If I can’t find them I can’t go home.”
“Okay, Gertrude,” I say, taking the woman by the arm. “Let’s go look for them.” There are no keys. Gertrude is sun downing – the agitation many people with dementia and Alzheimer’s suffer when daylight fades.
“I know someone stole my keys,” Gertrude hisses. “You can’t trust the people around here.”
“Let’s keep looking.”
Gertrude and I walk up and down the dayroom, looking under every table and in every drawer. Outside the window the setting sun is flaring magnificently as it makes way for night.
“Are these your keys?” I say, pointing to a plastic knife and fork.
“You found them!” Gertrude says, clutching them to her breast. “Thank you.”
“All part of the friendly service.” I’m not above trickery.
“Now let me go home,” the old lady says.
I shake my head. “I’m sorry Gertrude. I cannot do that.”
“Let me out of here! I have to cook my husband dinner!’
Gertrude has forgotten her husband’s dead and is becoming agitated. To calm her I sit with her and hold her hand. Looking at the patient bracelet dangling from her thin wrist I see her birthdate was November 1914. Gertrude is one hundred years old. Born at the start of The Great War, she was my age when Eisenhower was President. If I reach the century mark my daughter will be fifty-five. One day she might visit me in a place like this, tricking me with fake keys.
The unit is noisy, filled with confused old people complaining about pains and indignities real and imagined. Barely rising above the din, an AARP commercial plays on the television, showing robust and impossibly good looking elderly people singing and dancing. The director of this slick commercial decided to avoid the reality of ageing clamoring angrily around me. I guess decrepitude and adult diapers put a real damper on eternal life fantasies. But let’s face it; even death is packaged with ruthless commercial efficiency. Pre-plan your funeral, buy insurance for your final expenses and, for God’s sake, die a “good death.” Don’t make a fuss.
What the hell is a good death? The patients around me must be failing in this regard. They’re not dispensing quaint tidbits of wisdom or letting go with quiet dignity. They’re pissing in their pants, tormented by failing minds and bitching about the food. They’re going out kicking and screaming.
Perhaps that’s they way it should be, not the narcotized version the media tries peddling to us. “Man is not only the victim of pain and the progressive deterioration of his body,” the Fathers of Vatican II wrote. “He is also and more deeply, tormented by the fear of final extinction…. he rebels against death.”
I’m on record saying I’m not afraid of death, but watching my daughter come out of her mother’s womb changed all that. Watching new life catching fire cast my own life into shadow. That day I realized with absolute certainty that I was going to die. And as I held Natalie for the first time the words of Dylan Thomas’ famous poem thundered in my ears.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Oblivion suddenly became terrifying. And how, I thought to myself, could this new life in my arms ever, ever fade away? In my heart of hearts I knew it was impossible. The words of the church fathers I once studied took on new meaning. “But the instinctive judgment of (man’s) heart is right when he shrinks from, and rejects, the idea of a total collapse and definitive end of his own person.” On that day my gut told me Natalie would not end. I will not end. Maybe those guys in pointy hats were onto something.
Of course I have no idea what this all means. I haven’t dusted off my old breviary and started going to church. But I know if Natalie visits me when I’m a hundred I’ll probably be an old crank fighting to hold on until the end. That’s how we’re built. That’s what it means to be human. Don’t worry about dying a good death.That’s all pre-packaged bullshit. You’ll die how you die. What comes afterwards? I don’t know. There’s no law against hoping for something more.
Holding Gertrude’s hand I remember Dylan Thomas was also born in 1914. Maybe he’s drinking double whiskeys in Elysium right now, enthralling the Seraphim with his dramatic Welsh brogue. That’d be hilarious. Suddenly I’m glad to be among these old people, listening to them burn and rave as day draws to a close.
“Rage,” I say, silently joining their chorus. “Rage against the dying of the light.”