The Biblical news on old age is mixed. Patriarchs like Abraham were rewarded with long lives – yet the very mortality of man was bestowed as a punishment. Of the many penalties that women (pain in childbirth, enmity with the snake) and men (living by toil) incurred in the Garden of Eden, the last one is death: “to dust thou shall return.” Old age is not explicitly mentioned, but the story of the fall of Adam and Eve was read throughout the Middle Ages as the beginning of degeneration for both the world and the individual. In Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, as in many medieval and Renaissance depictions of this event, the post-lapsarian couple looks much older once they step out of Paradise. St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas both posited that Adam was kept from decaying by his pure soul until he sinned; once he had eaten of the forbidden fruit, decay began.
Milton extended this long tradition in Paradise Lost. The Archangel Michael explains to Adam that he has lost immortality through his transgression and must accept that, if he lives a temperate life and doesn’t succumb to plague or violence, he might live to be an old man (from Book XI):
There is, said Michael, if thou well observe 530
The rule of Not too much; by temperance taught,
In what thou eatest and drinkest; seeking from thence
Due nourishment, not gluttonous delight,
Till many years over thy head return:
So mayest thou live; till, like ripe fruit, thou drop
Into thy mother’s lap; or be with ease
Gathered, nor harshly plucked; for death mature:
This is Old Age; but then, thou must outlive
Thy youth, thy strength, thy beauty; which will change
To withered, weak, and gray; thy senses then, 540
Obtuse, all taste of pleasure must forego,
To what thou hast; and, for the air of youth,
Hopeful and cheerful, in thy blood will reign
A melancholy damp of cold and dry
To weigh thy spirits down, and last consume
The balm of life.
Milton, whose own old age was pretty miserable as he ended up both blind and on the wrong side of the king, did not glamorize mankind’s end years in any way; “withered, weak, and gray,” we will become if we’re not unfortunate enough to get leprosy or to be impaled first. Adam takes fright and decides he would rather die than end in the “melancholy damp” of old age:
Henceforth I fly not death, nor would prolong
Life much; bent rather, how I may be quit,
Fairest and easiest, of this cumbrous charge;
Which I must keep till my appointed day 550
Of rendering up, and patiently attend
The angel tells Adam when he dies needs to be left to heaven; but he does have a choice about how he lives:
Nor love thy life, nor hate; but what thou livest
Live well; how long, or short, permit to Heaven…
C.S. Lewis gave similar advice when writing an essay about how mankind could bear to live in the “atomic age,” with the overhanging threat of incineration at any minute. (It is interesting how immediate the threat of nuclear annihilation was to the writers of the mid-twentieth century.) Lewis points out that there has always been a threat of death – from the plague, war, cancer – and it was the inevitable ending of old age, but he goes on, like Milton, exhorting us to “live well” in the meantime:
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
The proximity of death is part of being old; I remember the story of an old man who, every time he had to see the doctor, wondered if this was the day that he would find out which disease would kill him. Some of us fear death as an ending; others have fears about the way in which we will die. Most of us, I suspect, fear both. When my mother died after a horrible couple of years with an extremely paranoic version of dementia, I told myself I would no longer fear any other kind of death, as long as I could keep my mind. But time passes and old fears (including the atomic variety I wrote about a few months ago) creep in.
The protagonist in “A Perfect Ending” is pleased with the way she completes her life, but not because she planned it that way.