This is from Beyond Recall by Mary Meigs, published by Talon Books Ltd. in 2005.
My greatest difficulty at eighty-five is to think coherent thoughts. I want to think about old age and instead my blurry eyes are drawn away from this paper by the movement of spring leaves, yellow-green, outside the window. They have been tossed by the wind for days and have grown into darker green summer leaves that fill the red spaces of the brick wall behind. Today a flock of little white birds has settled near the top of the Dolgo apple tree in a horizontal ripple; they will be the blossoms that Sylvie predicted. The scrutiny of them deflects my thoughts from old age.
Is old age the ideal way to finish living? Monique Bosco in L’Attrape-Rêves speaks of “the only winter that counts, the long and rigorous winter of old age.” I am pampered by sensitive women with generous hearts, who are artists, gardeners, inspired cooks, can listen without sighs of impatience to my croaky hesitant voice as I try to recall something or describe someone. To me my speech sounds as if I were a little drunk. I have trouble hearing properly both with and without my hearing-aid.
We should all have been seriously preparing for old age. Our bodies are in the process of choosing our death without telling us how it will happen. But like my mother and older brother, I had a stroke and learned a new vocabulary of therapy and hospital life and medication. We learned in therapy classes how not to fall down and how to make it harder to forget. But falling down ambushes us, finds a new method for tipping us over that we haven’t prepared for. As for forgetfulness, like an invisible, colourless, weightless gas, it may steal on us without warning, but the memory can’t be bullied or coaxed back. What gladness I feel when a memory returns, unforgettably clear. It may bring back something trivial or the reality of a dear friend and the life of our friendship. Sometimes it stays for weeks; sometimes, capriciously, it vanishes in the next minute.
I don’t want to live to a great old age, losing my faculties according to the unknown timetable that controls our aging. Friends enthusiastically give me examples to follow of energetic women who have lived to be a hundred. But that makes one think of the injustice of deaths died too soon. I still mourn for my father’s death at sixty-one of tuberculosis, just before penicillin became a cure. We were beginning to discover our closeness to each other, to realize how long it takes for children to catch up to their parents, to be accepted as friends.
We are encouraged now to prolong life as long as possible with hip and knee replacements, pacemakers, an array of medications. Some of us get a kind of negative pleasure from the number and severity of our ordeals. In the animal world, death is sometimes programmed so that the new generation can take over. Salmon turn a glorious red and become part of the great food chain; cicadas that have just emerged from seventeen years underground, transformed now into nymphs, swarm on tree trunks and set up a deafening mating song. In the din the females somehow choose the best singers; they mate and lay their eggs in the bark of trees. How tragic human death seems compared to the cicadas’ ode to joy and celebration of a new life, to the salmon’s radiant colour and leaping dance up rapids before they die. Sometimes human beings, too, celebrate the passage from life to death. My brother Wister’s four children, when he was dying, gathered around him and sang the songs that they had always sung together.
Before my twin sister Sarah died, I went to visit her in the retirement home where she and her husband were living out their lives. She did not talk much and sat in her wheelchair with her head bent low. I was almost unable to talk myself, guilty of being still well with nothing comforting to say, guilty of never having talked from the depths of my heart. Suddenly she looked up, straight at me. Her eyes were a clear green. “My Mary,” she said. It still makes me want to sob—her face was so kind. So we forgave each other once and for all for the times when we followed the old pattern of mistrust, and failed to reach toward each other. Now I conjure up that old joy instead of futile regrets, the bane of old age.
My three siblings died in the order of their birth: 1996, 1997, 1998. I was ready to complete that sibling sequence, but the years have gone by and I’m still here, hugging my pessimism— mourning the deaths of my dearest contemporaries, mourning the disappearance of forests, birds, animals and fish.
Recently I watched a video my brother Arthur had made over a period of years. I saw myself and my siblings young, my nieces and nephews as infants struggling to walk, our futures still locked inside us. In my lifetime it has become possible to make the passage of time visible, to see ourselves growing up, growing old, moving toward death. My lifetime has spanned convulsions of violence, hate, genocide, a vision of Armageddon, against the quiet working of miraculous discoveries that bind the living world together at the very moment that it is being smashed to pieces. But no act of violence can change the fact that as human beings we share percentages of identical DNA with flowers, animals, worms, that the intuitions of poets and philosophers like Blake and Spinoza have been correct.
In the beautiful little world around me, this house and its garden moving in the wind, with my pleasant schedule and lovable friends, a heavy curtain sometimes seems to fall in me. The invisible particles that make decisions have been consulting again. “Let’s try blocking dreams. Let’s prevent an idea from becoming intelligible.” My dreams continue, but by the next day only fragments remain. They are images of a diminished creative state where even ten years ago I often heard real birdsong, the thrilling song of a scarlet tanager, for instance, and saw him on a tree top. Bluebirds, eagles, exotic birds I had never seen in life, acted as symbols of joy and I woke from these dreams feeling happy. Now only fragments remain from dreams full of strangers, unfamiliar cities and landscapes.
Now and then there are points of light. The other night I saw my twin seated tranquilly in sunshine in a lawn chair. I wanted to dream that she flung her arms wide, that she said “my Mary” all over again. But she didn’t see me, and when I woke up I thought that I must stop begging silently for more.
I want to stretch out my hand and capture a few recent memories like fireflies with their cool incandescence and let them go. There is a place beyond recall, where reproaches die and my twin’s silent tranquility takes their place.