I’ve been feeling a bit subdued by the death this week of a favourite uncle, and, as I’m thinking rather a lot about him, I might as well make him the subject of this post.
Uncle Howard was 94 years old, and by any standards lived a full and rich life. When I had tea with him in his ocean-side apartment in Victoria BC a couple of months ago, I asked him, “How’s your life?” It was a serious question. He had stopped slogging (his 2k daily run); his knees and back had confined him to using a walker; he’d begun to need help with getting his daily provisions. I wanted to see what he felt about his quality of life. And he replied, emphatically: “My life is great.” He went on to explain how he sees his friends, and still travels the seawall on his walker. He reads the news and keeps up to date with current affairs. He enjoys his family, including his granddaughters and great-grandson. He whipped out his iPhone to display photos of his brand new great-granddaughter.
As has been the case since I was old enough to recognise wisdom when I saw it, I leaned forward and listened. It’s a habit around Howard that has served me well over a good many years.
In times gone by, Howard owned a large construction company; he was a WWII veteran; he was an equestrian; he travelled in influential circles. His wife had a ferocious intellect and added spice to all our lives. On retirement, they moved to Victoria to take advantage of the warmer climate, the seafood, ocean views—and waterways in which to sail their yacht Le Jacqueline, which they did unassisted until into their late eighties.
That three-sentence history doesn’t even begin to give you a taste of what Howard did with his life. But I’ll ease up on the detail; after all, he’s my uncle and you might not quite share my interest in trawling through the mementoes of his existence. You’ll have to trust me that his whole life made a contribution to the world.
At any rate, I reckon his dying was quick and easy. He lived at home until the day before he died – spending just one day in hospital before pneumonia swept him away. In a spell of consciousness, he tried to convince the staff that he’d caught a couple of salmon the day before, which everyone felt seemed unlikely. But the claim showed where his spirits were in his final moments.
I have a notion that (not unlike my own father – his brother) he felt he was losing quality of life and, not wanting to risk becoming a burden, gave permission to his body to shut itself down.
I’ve been reading a book called “What are Old People For?” and it has sensitised me to what’s on offer from the elderly. The author, William H Thomas, takes aim at what he describes as our youth-obsessed culture. He asserts that our preoccupation with staying young is so embedded that we are blind to its impact and unable to think outside the square of the assumption that young is good, aging is not. Resistance to moving away from youth, what we think of as our “prime”, goes deeper than wrinkle-cream and Botox. It’s a distortion that influences research studies, medical approaches and our thinking about longevity. “We take the constellation of traits that define our humanity for granted,” says Thomas, meaning that we don’t notice the gifts that hundreds of thousands of years of evolution have given us—all of us, from the very young to the very old.
Thomas makes the point that, as we age, we make “miraculous adaptations”. It bent my head to try to think, as he does, of the aging body as miraculous. As parts of the body are wearing out, other important bits of us, for example the critical ability to adapt and to creatively compensate, are improving. These traits, he claims, are at least as important to the human race as youthful vigour.
“If aging is truly a catastrophic prelude to death…then it deserves the dread it currently engenders.” What if, however, this is not the case? Thomas cites evidence that “nature finds aging very useful”. For example, older people report an enhanced sense of well-being and emotional equanimity. He also reflects at length on grand-parenting. He theorises that these humans who will reach across generations to support the offspring of their offspring are an evolutionary key, developed over some 40,000 generations, which has had the human race thrive over all other mammals. Isn’t that an amazing thing to consider?
My reflections on Uncle Howard this week support all of that thinking. In his youth and mid-life he worked hard and produced big results. But as he began to age, I experienced him even more as a contribution. His sense of humour, always a hallmark, flourished. His equanimity was close to an absolute, and he projected well-being at every turn. He made getting old look good.
And on the subject of grand-parenting, I know three young women who will testify its power. Howard’s granddaughters are all much more capable women for the influence he has had in their lives, and would be the first to say so.
There is an African saying: “The death of an old person is like the loss of a library.” Many stories, jokes, morsels of family history and nuggets of profound knowledge have died with Howard this week. But the equanimity, good humour, balance and joie de vivre he role-modelled live on in all of us who knew him.
He was a fine example of how to live and how to age. Mother Nature would nod her head in approval.
I’d like to leave you with a final word from Thomas: “Humans are the only creatures on Earth that specifically and energetically protect, sustain, and even nurture their elders. Although we all like to believe the best about our personal benevolence, the truth is that protecting older people has long served purposes much larger than simple charity. The elder is different from the adult because elderhood offers us a distinctive way of living. It is life beyond adulthood.”