I was reading an anecdotal story about C.S. Lewis the other day. Lewis was a Cambridge academic who wrote several books about Christianity that became required reading for many serious people in the middle years of the last century. He was a confirmed bachelor – ‘crusty’ they said of him. But then to his own surprise and the astonishment of all who knew him, he fell in love with an American divorcee. They married and had some years of happiness before she contracted cancer and died. It was a terrible loss to him and his faith faltered as he lost many of his certainties. Later when he himself was frail with various disabilities, he wrote to a correspondent who was similarly ill and alarmed at his failing powers. ‘The best way to cope with mental debility and total inertia is to submit to it entirely’ Lewis said. ‘Don’t try to concentrate. Pretend you are a dormouse or even a turnip.’
If the advice was meant ironically, there is still some truth in the idea that you can’t go back to where you once were and sometimes it may be better to surrender to tiredness and forgetfulness, than getting worked up and anxious about it.
But I don’t find much comfort in the thought that I might end up as a vegetable or a sleepy rodent.
I watched the mixture of people in town this morning. We have two universities here, and there were loads of students, often in companiable groups, walking briskly, sharing news. There were the little trails of bemused tourists, being introduced to the city by official guides. Some local people of indeterminate age were there to do routine shopping. And then there were the old folks – some very old indeed. A man with two sticks, slowly, slowly crossing the road. Several women hobbling along, supported by the shopping trolley they were pushing. An elderly man was sitting in his wheel chair in the shade of a tree, eating fish and chips.
Another man was walking with the help of a zimmer frame. On the bus on my way home the two elderly women sitting behind me were swapping stories of younger days and checking up on who was well and who was not.
Submitting to failing powers may be a good thing sometimes, and the luxury of allowing forgetfulness to take over without panic can ease the strain of trying to remember names and places. Part of the rhythm of ageing perhaps: giving up but then taking up. There were no signs of surrender amongst the people I saw and travelled with on this Spring morning. Perhaps it was the sunshine. More likely here in the city, taking their place in the wider community, were older people determined and commitmed to keeping going.