Waiting to Go

Many of the older people I know spend a great deal of their time waiting. They wait in doctors’ offices, for airplanes, for the mail. They wait for the next shoe to drop. In an article about whether old people are ready to die, one woman said she was: “I just say I’m the lady-in-waiting, waiting to go.” We know that the next step is coming – be it diagnosis, hospital, assisted living, nursing home, or death, and we do what we can to prepare. But regardless of Milton’s dictum that “They also serve who also stand and wait,” we must remember that this is the same poet who gave us “He for God only, she for God in him.” There is nothing heroic about waiting. It is something we do when we wish we could be doing something else.

There are some rather notable older “waiters” in history. There was Simeon in the temple. Simeon has been promised by the Holy Spirit (Luke 2) that he will see the Messiah before he dies; he is very old and has been “waiting for the death wind” as well as the chosen Child. Once he sees the Christ, he is ready to depart. Nunc dimittis, let us depart. Finally.

There is the old man in Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” who has been waiting to die and knocking with his cane on Mother Earth to open up and let him in. There is Marcher in Henry James’ “Beast in the Jungle,” always waiting for the monster to pounce. Marcher waits and hedges as his life goes by. There is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Ernest who waits all his life for the man whose visage matches the Great Stone Face, only to find as he dies that that man is himself. And then there are Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, eternally waiting for Godot (aren’t we all?).

One of my favorite poems about waiting is Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting”; here is my favorite line: “I am waiting/for the Age of Anxiety/to drop dead/and I am waiting/for the war to be fought/which will make the world safe/for anarchy.” Ferlinghetti just turned 100 and is apparently going strong. I guess that he probably gave up waiting for anything a long time ago. My favorite song about waiting is by Leonard Cohen: “Waiting for the Miracle.” “Nothing left to do/When you’ve got to go on waiting/Waiting for the miracle to come.” Cohen died the day before Trump was elected so I suppose he was still hoping for a miracle.

Everyone waits for something, of course. Pregnant mothers wait nine months, teenagers wait until they are old enough to get a license or a drink, high school seniors wait for that acceptance letter, brides and grooms wait for the wedding day. But the waiting of old age seems to be different. Our waiting is tinged with dread. And, too often, it causes us to cling to the status quo. If what we’ve always done hasn’t killed us yet, maybe we should keep doing it is our faulty reasoning.

For us older folks, there is waiting for the big death, of course. But there is also the fear of the little deaths – not the little death of sex, but the little deaths of loss – people, houses, places, careers, objects, bodily functions.

What should our attitude be? I am no proponent of pretending we are young, of throwing caution to the winds. But we should throw something to the winds. Perhaps we should listen to the Belle of Amherst who said in the most matter-of-fact tone: “Because I could not stop for death – He kindly stopped for me.” And when he stops, Ms. Dickinson is not surprised. She has been expecting him, but not waiting around for him to show up.

There are several ladies-in-waiting in my stories – handling it in better or worse ways. You might try “A Perfect Ending” or “Nothing New.”

The Poetry of Old Age

On the topic of aging, I most trust poets who are old. Some poets –like Frost and Yeats – wrote poetry throughout a long life. Some turned to poetry in their old age. Thomas Hardy published his first volume of poetry at age fifty-eight and apparently wrote nothing but poetry for the next thirty years. I think poetry lends itself to the old mind, both in the writing and the reading. Good spirits must be distilled.

There are various types of poetry about old age. There is serious poetry and silly poetry. There are elegies for what has been and odes to the joys of senescence. There are genres and tropes. There have been more than a few poems about glimpsing one’s own aging façade in the bathroom mirror – one thinks of Hardy’s “I Look Into My Glass” or Robert Graves’ “The Face in the Mirror.” There are poems of return to places of one’s youth and reminiscences of lost loves. (Yeats is good at this.) Poignant poems capture the difficulties and loneliness of old age. There are no more affecting lines than the end of Frost’s “An Old Man’s Winter Night.” Other poems are filled with the realization that life is going to go on without us, as in Housman’s “Tell Me Not Here.

Then there are the losses – which some poets see as a mixed blessing. There is the loss of memory. In “The Winter Palace,” Larkin writes that “Some people know more as they get older, /I give all that the cold shoulder.” There is the loss of those we love, as in  Auden’s “Funeral Blues.” And the prospect of our own death, which for some is fearsome (mostly for the younger ones – Dylan Thomas was only thirty-three when he wrote “Do Not Gentle”), for others is welcome (Stevie Smith’s magnificent “Black March” or Auden’s “A Lullaby”). For some the final event is imagined – we hear and see the deathbed scene in Dickinson’s “I Heard A Fly Buzz When I Died.”

As I read poetry or novels, I note the age of the poet/author at the time of composition. This is easier in older volumes wherein the date of birth of the author appear on the back of the title page in the Library of Congress information (why did they stop?), but there is always Wikipedia. I find it particularly interesting to read works of poets at about my own age. The human experience is not entirely singular; there are correspondences. And differences.

I read poetry about old age to learn about myself. Poets can put into language what I often cannot. If I cannot speak it, if I cannot even think it coherently, I cannot truly comprehend it. E.M. Forster asked, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” Flannery O’Connor said, ““I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” I read poetry about old age to give me words for what I am feeling. To give me courage. And sometimes for comfort.

I have attached a list in progress of some poems about aging that are worth looking at. In addition, as I have noted before, there is a wonderful collection by Harold Bloom entitled: Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems. There is also The Art of Growing Older by Wayne Boothe which gathers poems and other literature about aging into categories. Part of my daily reading for years has been in the Poem A Day books – there are three volumes. The original volume was compiled as a project for The Natural Death Centre in Great Britain, and many of the poems address old age, loss, and death. Many of them also express and bring joy. I will add to my list of old age poems as more come to mind or are discovered; I encourage readers to send me their own favorites. In this business of being on the downside of life’s parabola, we all need comfort, companionship, and a marked-up map.

So what is my favorite poem about aging? I am tempted to cite Frost’s two-liner, written in his eighties:

Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee
And I’ll forgive Thy great big one on me.

But no. My choice (at least for today) is from A. E. Housman’s volume Last Poems. Housman published only two volumes of poetry in his lifetime – one at age thirty-seven (A Shropshire Lad) and Last Poems at age sixty-three. I own a first U.S. edition of the latter, and it is a treasured possession. On page 60 is the following poem:

XXXV
When first my way to fair I took
Few pence in purse had I,
And long I used to stand and look
At things I could not buy.

Now times are altered: if I care
To buy a thing, I can;
The pence are here and here’s the fair,
But where’s the lost young man?

– To think that two and two are four
And neither five nor three
The heart of man has long been sore
And long ’tis like to be.