|The Ages of Man. 13th c. illumination|
And lately, things in my father's brain have made confronting all of this more and more intense. He calls every morning telling me to take him to North Carolina; he says lots and lots of things that aren't worth writing down because they're ridiculous and awful and the words will stay out here, while his thoughts will have fled long ago. So I go to see him, I go to apologize to the nurses for all of the yelling that he's doing: he's refusing to sleep in his bed, he wants to dictate letters, he won't let them change him. I try to talk to him, to reason with him a little bit, to cajole him, joke with him, distract him. He says totally crazy stuff back. And then he says stuff that's not crazy at all: his gaze is familiar, the tone of his voice makes the deepest sense - there's a lucid flash that makes me believe completely for that moment that everything else is what's false and this is what's real. But then he says something to make me realize afresh anew that no, no he's gone and why can't I get that through my head? I know that I'm supposed to put all that somewhere, the things he says, the looks, the gestures; I know that I'm supposed to dismiss it and chalk it up and sequester it. But in these moments I just can not. And yet (I start to tell myself), everybody goes through this: everybody loses someone at one point or another. Faster or slower. There is absolutely nothing unusual or terrifying about any of this. Like with so many other things, I need find the larger narrative, join it, help it help me make sense of things. Move away from the raw existential thrust of it (this is my father whom I knew, who is alone and angry and strange), to the expansive narrative frame for it (there is love and there is loss that everyone endures, and you are not alone and his anger is not real and actually it's not so strange).
The general tenor surrounding old age in the medieval period is that of the ridiculous: the doddering, the wandering, the negligible. The medieval west was not a culture to respect its elders - there's no ancestor worship, no great amount of time or ritual spent making the old venerable. There's an interesting history there, no doubt. For now, these 10 Ages of Man fascinate. Here they are again:
complexity of memory and its call to further mysteries. My dread can turn to fascination if I think of the others who have thought this through.