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.