April 11, 2006

Old Enough to Write It

In his twenties he tried to write a novel about old age, just to show he could. He wrote a draft in a furious three-month burst, and everyone he showed it to said the same thing: it read like a young man’s dream of old age, hitting all the predictable keynotes but missing the quirky illuminations you had to have lived through to know. It was the high-speed fury, he sensed, that had misled him.

In his forties, successful and known, he started again, but only got a few pages into it before the press of all his other commitments made him set it aside. Novels about old people didn’t fit in with the image he wanted to cultivate.

In his sixties, old age was the last thing he wanted to think about.

In his eighties, he knew he could finally do it. He wrote a couple of paragraphs every day, in longhand, and stopped when he got tired, after which he would have some tea and reread an old favorite, something Russian or English and older than he was. Although he felt he was racing against time – just as he had felt in his twenties – he also knew somehow that if he kept up steadily and slowly, time would draw itself out to let him finish. And that is what happened. He put everything in, and never worried if he was overdoing the details. When he wrote the last paragraph, he was lying in the bed from which he would never get up, scrawling half-legibly on the clipboard on his lap.

The paper rattled lightly as it crossed the small space between him and his son. In a flood, all words were leaving him. All he could say at last was: “You’ll see it gets out?”

“Sure, Dad.”

The old man closed his eyes and saw himself at the top of an immeasurably high cliff. It had taken all this time to reach the top, it had all led up to this moment of consummation. He saw distant fields, tiny pennanted castles, and far beyond, a white line of surf, a boundless sea. Down below, he could see his twentyish self, his fortyish, self and his sixtyish self struggling upwards at three different levels of the climb. It made him dizzy to recall how much they didn’t know yet, how much was still left for them to see, and this best of all. It’s wonderful up here, he shouted, but his voice scattered in the wind.

As his hand on the sheet of paper relaxed, he leaned over the edge of the cliff and lifted one foot. And as the paper left his hand, he leaned further and lifted the other foot off the ground and dove into the breathless air.