I am now in the seventh week of my diet. Since dieting is, for me, a kind of little death, it is perhaps not surprising that I have been ruminating lately on old age. I have already told the story of my life in three volumes, like a nineteenth century novel, but when I had brought the story up to the present and concluded it, I spent very little time reflecting on what I might have learned from the undertaking. Now, as my stomach grumbles and my nights are filled with nakedly wish-fulfilling dreams of banquets, I find my usually idle thoughts turning to the lessons of almost seventy-eight years.
One thought that struck me with particular force this morning as I was taking my four mile walk was that there is now in this world one and only one person who has known me for my entire life -- my big sister Barbara. Since she and I are the oldest of the cousins, and inasmuch as our parents and all of the uncles and aunts have long since passed away, it is only in her memory that I exist as a unified whole. If I may speak in Kantian fashion, the integrity of my life exists in the unity of Barbara's consciousness. My wife, Susie, has known me since I was fourteen, and that fact grounds the extraordinary bond between us, but even she only met me after I was in large part formed. My children, of course, have known me their entire lives, but since they are forty-three and forty-one, there are three decades and a half to which they were never witness. It is in my consciousness that their unity resides.
It is lonely to go through life without someone whom you have welcomed into the inner circle of your life, past the billboards and fences and false faces that we all erect to keep out strangers. But it is far lonelier still to know that you are the sole witness to the totality of your life. Autobiographies are works of art, and therefore deliberately constructed realities, a fact that bedevils literary scholars trying to make sense of the lives that autobiographers have fashioned from the chaos and detritus of their memories, so the readers of my autobiography know only a more or less artfully devised version of my life.
Susie and I, like many couples our age, hold hands when we walk. This is of course partly so that each of us may steady the other through those unpredictable moments that can so easily lead to hip replacements. In our case, and that of many other couples, holding hands is also an expression of old and settled affection. But something else is at work in this familiar practice, I think. We are reassuring each other, and ourselves, that someone can affirm the temporal unity of our existence.
As I was writing these lines, Susie received a call telling her of the passing of a much loved aunt, the last of the old guard in her deceased mother's extended family. Even though Claire, who died at ninety-four, had not really been present with us in recent years, Susie nevertheless felt the loss keenly.
Old age comes to those of us who are fortunate, and death to all of us, lucky or not. The most we can strive for is to approach the end of our lives with what Erik Erikson called integrity -- the awareness of coherence and hence some measure of meaning in "the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history."
Very soon, I promise, I shall have something to eat, and shall regain my usual sunny temperament.