Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is
Gustave Klimt: Old Man on His Deathbed
One of the coolest speeches concerning the decrepitude of old age is the Duke’s contempto mundi screed in Measure for Measure, delivered to poor Claudio who has (to use guidance counsellors’ dearest cliché´) made a bad choice.
He’s impregnated his fiancée.
Not a capital crime, you muse. Well, fornication hadn’t been until the Duke’s successor Angelo took over the government and started enforcing every law on the books, no matter how ancient or unjust. Addressing Claudio on the eve of his supposed execution, the Duke offers some words of recompense for a life cut short (and a rather lurid peek into a future none of us wants to consider):
If thou [old person] art rich, thou’rt poor;
For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,
Thou bear’st thy heavy riches but a journey,
And death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none;
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner. Thou hast nor youth nor age;
But, as it were, an after-dinner’s sleep,
Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth
Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms
Of palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich,
Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,
To make thy riches pleasant [. . .]
Yeah, but! There’re still crossword puzzles, unread novels, Fletcher Henderson recordings, sunsets, that majestic roof fretted with golden fire, Shakespeare himself . . .
Nevertheless, I, too, admit I’d rather die than get shipped off to a nursing home. Luckily, my late wife Judy’s parents avoided that fate as did my daddy and my mama (and both sets of grandparents). My wife Caroline’s father is still going strong alone at eighty.
Unfortunately, Judy’s grandmothers ended up in a “home,” and each trip down to St. Simons when Birdie and Gramma were among the quick included the resiquite visit to the motel-like care facilities where they languished.
Although the two women had been nothing alike before their relocation – Birdie a gardener and world traveler, Gramma sedentary, a knitter – afterwards, their conversation consisted of the same broken record, a litany of complaints: stolen jewelry, bad food, bodily decay, a life not worth living.
Still, they appeared to be in much better shape that the wheel-chair bound specimens parked on the front terrace as you walked in. It was like something out of Brueghel or Bosch: skeletons, twisted into fetal position, oblivious, with open maws, or others, non-comatose, but wild-eyed and confabulating, living a hallucination.
Breughel: The Beggars
Terrible to witness, but a brave soul must stare down horror if he or she wants to go wide-eyed and laughing to the grave.
* * *
No one – no matter how successful or accomplished – can be assured that he or she won’t end up warehoused in some facility.
Among the famous names to have been shunted [at Motion Picture Country House] are Johnny Weissmuller, best known for playing Tarzan, and Oscar-winning actress Mary Astor who was remembered for sitting aloofly at her own dinner table.
The actor DeForest Kelley – Dr McCoy from Star Trek – spent his last days enjoying the picturesque palm trees and topiary. Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to win an Oscar, for her portrayal of “Mammy” in Gone with The Wind, and director Stanley Kramer, who was nominated for nine Oscars, were also residents.
To think that Tarzan spent his last days cooped up in a Hollywood nursing home! Gazing at picturesque palm trees and topiary ain’t gonna cut it for someone who swung through the jungle on vines.
Then there’s Samuel Beckett, who ended up in a Paris maison de repos.
About a year ago, after falling in his apartment, he moved to a nearby nursing home, where he continued to receive visitors. He lived his last year in a small, barely furnished room. He had a television set on which he continued to watch major tennis and soccer events, and several books, including his boyhood copy of Dante’s ”Divine Comedy” in Italian.
On July 17 this year, his wife died and he left the nursing home to attend the funeral. Late this year, after he became ill, he was moved to a hospital. There are no immediate survivors.
Damn, Beckett dies in a Beckett play.
Who better to have the last word than Philip Larkin?
Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside you head, and people in them, acting
People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun’s
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.
In my case, Harrison and Ned