You awaken slowly, slats of light through the blinds, the vague realization that you are alive again, that it is another day again, that soon you will move your limbs into the motions of getting out of bed. Into this bleary foggy early awakening comes an intrusion, an interruption of the ordinary: it is your birthday, your 77th. You are, says the calendar, 77 years old today. The number is indifferent and stunning.
When you rise, you know, there will be messages on the devices –the IPhone, the Kindle –because, even in these late years, you have adapted, in an elementary and limited fashion and despite daily frustration, to the technology of instant communication. While you still experience a little frisson of anticipatory energy when you open the mailbox in the lobby and find therein a “real” letter or card, as opposed to the endless flyers, catalogues, and bills, you have learned an appreciation for e-cards and e-gifts certificates and cyber-greetings. You seldom resort to such greetings yourself, at least not as the only acknowledgment of occasion, still retaining your title as “Hallmark Queen” and helping to keep the US Post Office in business.
You will rise as a 77-year-old woman, having lived long enough that events of your past experience are now “history” in the textbook and classroom sense of the word. You will rise into a broken world, your own country and many others still at war. Your life began in 1940 as WWII raged; you have a vague memory of sitting on the porch steps of the house in Buzzards Bay with a cooking pot on which you were banging, with the grown-ups approval, a metal spoon – war’s end. You came into your own first wave of political consciousness in the McCarthy-red-scare era. Influenced by your father’s views, you learned to speak of “pinkos” and “fellow travelers” with patriotic scorn. You remember the Rosenberg executions. You have a cocktail napkin autographed to you personally by Richard Nixon, whom your father, district manager for Western Union, met while handling communications for Nixon’s campaign tour of New Hampshire. You will leave for college in 1958 as a conservative and graduate in 1962 as a liberal, the civil rights movement having replaced your father as authority on justice. You will hope to change the world.
And then you will fall in what you think is love, fall pregnant when you are sure that can’t happen, get married because there is no real alternative, have three children in 17 months (a singleton and twins), move from Maryland to Connecticut to Kansas to New Jersey, there to stay through divorce, raising your children into adulthood, growing in your career as an educator, writing a bit, getting published a bit, gaining some limited recognition in your field, growing older alone, sometimes lonely, sometimes not. Then after 30 years, early retirement, too early perhaps, and a move to a small town in the Adirondack mountains, there to interact every day with grandsons and every summer with Manhattan grandkids. And then to Utica, here where you are waking to the realization that you are 77 years old.
Old age is strange place –not Byzantium, for sure, pace Yeats. The strangeness is exacerbated when one lives, as you do, in an apartment complex segregated by age –one must be 55 to live here; many, perhaps most, residents are older. The appearance of children, guests, arouses in various residents, either sentimental delight or irritation. There are many dogs here, and they, too, evoke similar responses from the residents. There are fewer couples than there are women living alone –widows, divorcees, and just plain single women. There is a comfortable, safe, secure flatness to this world of old people. Their conditions illustrate the fickleness of fate: the active ninety-year old with all her faculties intact; the woman in her seventies who sometimes can’t find her apartment and roams from building to building until rescued by a friend, those of different ages dependent on walkers and scooters and other people to move about. You know you should feel grateful for reasonably good health, having done so little to maintain it. You know you should not eat so much chocolate. You don’t drink alcohol any longer –at least there’s that.
This birthday morning you realize again that you didn’t change the world, that you never really got to emulate Joan of Arc whose name you took at confirmation, that you now understand too well Stephen Spender’s lines:
What I expected, was
Long struggles with men
After continual straining
I should grow strong;
Then the rocks would shake
And I rest long.
What I had not foreseen
Was the gradual day
Weakening the will
Leaking the brightness away,
The lack of good to touch,
The fading of body and soul
Smoke before wind,
You have lived your life in literature; books have limned the life you dreamed, the exit lines you wanted for yourself, the plots you wished to inhabit. Poems spoke for you, the poems of others better than your own. The hardest realization this morning, this 77th birthday morning, is that your life, like that of most people, has been small, average, relatively insignificant. You are supposed to take heart from the fact that your children, now in their 50’s, live decent, independent lives; that they have raised children whom you love and who give you moments of joy. But you also know that the greater number of people you love –three children, then six grandchildren—the more anxiety, pain and disappointment you can expect. Your expectations, for self and others, is often too high. The “gradual day” can be long and colorless, bland and lonely.
Now you understand King Lear as you never did when you taught the play many times years ago. Not so much the selfish Lear of Act I, but the mad Lear on the heath and wandering alone afterwards, deranged by the realization of his own insignificance, powerlessness and selfishness.
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!
Like Lear, you have realized how little care we have taken of the less fortunate among us, how the current administration will strip the poor even more naked, how powerless you feel at this realization. Later, Lear, bending over the body of his finally beloved daughter Cordelia, begs someone “Pray you, undo this button.” you understand this plea now, very well, as a prayer to be unclothed from one’s flesh, to be free to die unencumbered by the trappings we wear to cover the pathos of mortality. In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus, the man for whom you would have become a camp follower, speaks of “the hour of consciousness,” that allows us to consider Sisyphus happy despite his endless, repetitive struggle to push that rock up the hill. You have been conscious, as Lear becomes and Camus explicates, of the absurdity, the randomness, the essential smallness of a human life. The consciousness began as youthful aspiration –to be Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Cady Stanton; as time, with its relentless pounding away at illusions, went on, you began to realize the limits of your own courage and vision. You settled into the middle class and safely bordered life of career and suburbs and literature. Now in old age, you see it all too clearly, the long sadness that comes of consciousness, loss of faith, depredations of age, the simple fact of mortality.
Yesterday you heard from a young man whom you encouraged to write poetry and who thanks you for mentoring him into the life of the intellect. He called to tell you he has been accepted into a prestigious MFA program in creative writing. He will be a poet, and he credits you for inspiration and encouragement. There have been a few such young writers whom you, like so many English teachers, have mentored into the confidence to write and publish poetry. You realize with a mix of sadness and pride that you are a better editor and mentor of emerging poets than you are a poet yourself. That the poems you write lack verve and energy even when they “work.” But you have been unerring in spotting a potential poet or novelist. They have acknowledged you in autographs and acknowledgments. You love to read their work.
Is that enough? As the end comes nearer and seems both inevitable and perhaps desirable, is it enough to know you have influenced young people, that you have raised good children and influenced the raising of grandchildren, all of whom love you? Is it enough that you did not change the world, lead an army, earn an obituary in the New York Times? You ask yourself as the sun stripes the comforter you huddle under and your cellphone chimes as a message comes in, probably a birthday greeting. Perhaps it has to be, you think, it has to be enough. Every life you have touched has also touched and changed yours. Perhaps that really is enough. Time now to get up and make a day of this one, your 77th birthday.