Simply by living life we come across every aspect of it, from birth to death – and that includes all the joys, laughter, madness, frustrations, hurts, slights, triumphs, challenges and innumerable other things and situations (great and small) that affect us personally and/or cause us to reflect upon who we are, what we’re doing and where we’re going. If these don’t actually happen to us, they occur to other people around us (e.g. family, friends, people we know or perhaps whom we heard of indirectly) and thus, by such means, to one extent or another – we carry with us an awareness of all that life can bring.
I have learned an enormous amount about myself and human beings in general by being close to who have been seriously and then terminally ill – this is inevitable when you have lived as long as I have. One of the consequences is that there is very little about human decline that shocks me, or could shock me, if I should ever come across something for the first time.
By chance this weekend I am staying with my father, who is in his ninetieth year. He was and remains devoted to my mother, who died eight years ago, and lives on his own despite his love of people and socialising. That’s his choice.
Without wearing any family rose-tinted glasses in saying this, on a good day (of which thankfully there are many), holding forth from his favourite arm chair, a glass of something alcoholic in his hand, he can still easily pass for someone of eighty, or even seventy-five, in conversation.
On those occasions one tends to perceive him as being eighty, or even seventy-five.
Yet on other occasions he can easily become confused, ask the same question repeatedly in a relatively short period of time, or otherwise act in a manner that gives rise to sympathetic indulgence, or possibly concern, in members of the family.
Observing my father as he gets older, I have noticed how he struggles – as we all do – to cope with effect of time upon his own body and faculties. It is a truism that inside we all think of ourselves as permanently eighteen [well okay maybe twenty-five], that is, unless and until we get involuntarily reminded from time to time by infirmity, walking by a mirror, a failure to comprehend some piece of modern technology, or even a growing lack of interest in what seems to make the world of youngsters go around, that we are actually thirty-five, forty-five, sixty or whatever-older-age-we-have-reached.
One of my father’s regular and endearing comments to young people he meets is “Let me give you a piece of advice – don’t grow old!” but of course you cannot stop yourself growing older, no matter how hard you try. At one and the same time my father now spends his time observing and commenting upon the 21st Century as if he were a youngster just starting out, but also constantly comparing it unfavourably with the past.
He approaches the little tasks in life – the business of renewing his car insurance or his residential car park badge for example – as if he is immortal and yet, in other circumstances, his life is gradually shrinking in its scope even though he doesn’t always appreciate it.
Yesterday morning, for example, he came down in the morning at about 7.00am, noticed I was in the drawing room sitting at the computer and so, instead of going to make his breakfast, came and sat on the sofa to chat.
We reviewed our plans for the day – at some point after 9.00am we would be going out upon a programme of errands, but after that the day would broadly be ours to fill – and then, on the back of a name that came up, he told an anecdote about said gentleman and his wife.
This led, in relatively short succession, to him mentioning a series of other people that we both knew (and other stories about them) and eventually to three or four incidents from his own life.
There was nothing particularly remarkable about this twenty or so minutes we thereby spend in conversation yesterday – save only this.
In all, I guess that during this time he must have told me perhaps ten little tales. All of which I had heard him tell before, some of them nearer three hundred than two hundred times (I should estimate) over the past forty years.
Part of me recognises that we all have only a certain number of anecdotes from the past that we can remember, so it is inevitable that we will tend to repeat ourselves. That’s nothing to worry about – indeed, I’m sure I tell the same stories over and over myself!
On the other hand, another part of me cannot stop myself becoming slightly concerned when my father tells me ten stories in a row, all of which I’ve heard umpteen times before.
Does he not recognise that he must have told me ‘this one’ previously?
I only ask this question because he prefaced two of his stories yesterday with the phrase “I must have told you this one before, but …” and then went on to tell me said story anyway, in its original long form (with little asides and quips along the way). I’d heard both of them so often before that, if desired, I could have repeated them word-for-word before he did. The fact is, I’ve now reached the point in his – and my – existence where I’m content to just let him get on with doing it.
Life’s a funny old game, isn’t it?