I had the great pleasure of joining Michael for his 80th birthday celebration last year, and in this letter, he describes his thoughts and feelings about the gains and losses of reaching this lofty landmark.
Having eclipsed 70 myself I am having simlar thoughts, but that’s for another time. Here’s Michael...
As I celebrated my 80th with family and friends in the Wolseley restaurant in London last November, I knew that 8o was just a number, but surprisingly, unlike the previous 79 birthday numbers in my life this particular one seemed unusual. It felt like an irreversible marker that can only be turned back in memory.
Can people still turn back the milometers in second hand cars? Somehow I doubt it, and in any case, just as you usually can with a human body, you could nearly always tell this had happened as the many signs of wear and tear inevitably showed up.
I used to enjoy it when in my seventies people would say “You don’t look 70, you can’t possibly be 70”, but now it doesn’t give me the same illusion of reassurance. I’d rather be my age and look my age to people in general, and enjoy most, but not all of the realities of it. Except, when it comes to the opposite sex. I'll write about that later.
My eighth birthday, my first memorable encounter with the number eight, was not a happy one for me. I was an evacuee in a boarding school run by ‘the Two Witches of Fulbrook’, near Burford in the Cotswolds. All I can remember of my time under the jurisdiction of these terrible two Thompson sisters, I feared and dreaded, is walking in fields of cowslips and cowpats, stepping into a wasps nest and getting 26 stings – I remember counting them. I was told that bravery meant not showing and if possible not even feeling pain – a mad British lesson in suppression. Eighteen wasn’t bad, except I looked fourteen and so when I went to dances at the local tennis club to try to start some kind of a ‘something’ with one of the many dazzling and attractive young women there, they usually thought I was the owner’s son. They would pat me on the head or blow me a kiss and so I never got anywhere at all with my early, but later than average, sexual ambitions.
From the age of twenty-eight, fortunately, looking much younger was ceasing to be a serious problem at work. By that time neither age nor birthdays meant much. Thirty, forty, fifty, sixty and seventy slipped by with all the normal dramas and ups and downs of life filling my time and using up all my capacities to think and feel. But eighty seemed somehow to be different – a cause for a pause. And during that pause, which I realise will be a brief one because I’ve so much more to accomplish, all sorts of thoughts and feelings are now vying for my attention.
The first thought is that even since my recent 80th, several close friends and creative giants have died and so I may be now approaching what many refer to as ‘the end of life’. These giants were people that I’d always counted on for inspiration and collaboration and now, suddenly, they’re no longer there. It’s a sad feeling of irretrievable loss.
The second thought I find myself having is about the many repressive regimes in our world and particularly the ones that flourished during our time, like Pinochet’s Chile, Hitler’s Germany and many others in which the closest of relatives and best of friends could suddenly not be there and disappear for good. I thank God that life in the UK for many, but not all of us, isn’t as dangerous, although I realise that in India, and worse still in Pakistan, particularly for women, the threat of rape is terrifying and every single Indian man, and all men in general should feel profound shame.
Third, I’m assuming I’m relatively fit because various doctors and consultants to whom parts of my body have to say thank you, tell me that I am, but maybe that’s what they tell all their octogenarian patients. Maybe just like an old car, signs of wear and tear will continue to appear without warning and bits and pieces will need repair or replacement. Come to think of it, little by little, I notice I seem to need more and more little pills. I have to struggle to remind myself to take them on time.
Luckily, I’ve found devices that help me not to miss any. But, and I find this perplexing and even scary, a few moments after taking them, I can’t remember whether I did or didn’t, and I’m too absent-minded, stubborn and stupid to mark the packets as I take the pills. What else, I wonder, am I forgetting, and how often do I use procrastination or acceptance of a less than perfect memory as an excuse.
After this brief pause for reflection and acceptance of my four score years, I decided to do something about the many of what I thought were flutters or palpitations in my heart. I’d known for years I had irregularities in my heartbeat, many of us do, and it was one of those things that, along with a few others, I’d been scared to raise with my doctor. When I eventually did, I was referred to a brilliant cardiologist. I had a whole variety of tests and was reassured about how well my heart was performing for me and how, whatever it was that would end my life one day, it wouldn’t be my heart. We shall see, I thought.
And then, after another test, he advised me to have a pacemaker inserted close to my heart. I was shocked. I fell into a series of hypochondriac’s illusions, and started to contemplate my demise and how soon it would be.
But it was an easy two-hour operation for me, most likely not so easy for the Cardiologist, and a night in a stuffy, gloomy hospital to gain the reassurance that my heart won’t stop beating on its own, because the pacemaker won’t let it.
So now, as I’ve passed the 80 marker, and my mind and body continue running smoothly, let me conclude this tale with the bit I left out, the subject of sex and dealing with the many attractions, fantasies, thoughts and feelings that I still encounter every single day.
Recently I posted my thoughts about love and relationships on Facebook. I’d thought long and hard about them and I'll continue with them in a moment. But first, a quote by Gabriel Garcia Marquez who’s book, ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, I’ve read many times and will again. He always makes me feel good, normal, fortunate and complete.
In a way it’s a very sad quote and a comment on our ultimate desire for both love and isolation. A wonderful and unusually perceptive doctor called Tony Ryle once likened it to two porcupines trying to get together. In my view Marquez is describing a kind of holding back; a limitation; a shrivelling of the heart.
“She knew that he loved her above all else, more than anything in the world, but only for his own sake.”
That inclination to isolation seems to me to beckon as we age. As early as the age of sixty, I started to become convinced that the beautiful women to whom I felt superficially attracted, saw, if they noticed me at all, an old man with little to offer them. It’s a curse, and sometimes, a relief, I thought, to be so easily attracted to all the subtle nuances of beauty and to allow them to raise desires that will more often than not remain unrequited. Although I admit, I still live in hope.
It’s probably much better, at my age now to see and enjoy these beautiful creations as flowers and to enjoy them with less compulsion to pick them.
But it does make me stop and wonder about the typical social environments of older adults living on their own as well as the relatively isolated life older people are offered in many of our care homes. I’d enjoy writing to you about that one day.
So, now, to finish this letter, here are some exceptional words of guidance about relationships. I’ve always known these wise words intuitively but have never seen them so well expressed. I think these words by Khalil Gibran are among the most beautiful and useful descriptions of a relationship, a relationship that can be created and experienced by anyone at any age.
“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.”