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Jean Vanier is shown in Trosly-Breuil, France, in 2008. (IAN BROWN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Jean Vanier is shown in Trosly-Breuil, France, in 2008. (IAN BROWN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

'Am I fearful of death? No, I cannot say I am' Add to ...

Ian Brown writes:

Dear Jean,

I spent a day last week with my father on his birthday - he is 95 now. He still goes to work, still tries to exercise every morning, still plants tomatoes each spring, still plans to harvest his crops each fall.

The crop itself is almost irrelevant: When I see him in the garden, working, using his body, I know he is doing one of the things he loves most. He is not complicated. The garden, the office, work, usefulness, the company of people he admires and who make him laugh and think - those are still his pleasures.

A year ago, he slipped and fell, and spent a few weeks on his back. The accident has made him more cautious, and it meant he couldn't drive any more.

His car had been the great equalizer. He may not have been able to run as fast as others (he played squash until he was 87) or to lift a flagstone as big as the one I can, but in his car he could drive as fast and as far as anyone.

Now, the car is sitting in the garage, and he feels like he is too.

What I have noticed is not his aging - beyond the things one usually notices, such as the translucency of the skin, the scary three-stage catapult trick to get out of the car, the care he takes on steps - so much as his dislike of aging. Last week, he said to me: "I'd rather be dying at 75 than alive at 95."

We had just spent a very pleasant hour, chatting over coffee about his life. He did it with energy. And yet his physical performance shames him.

I wonder if you, Jean, fear the approach of the end of your life or, at least, resent the physical weakening of your body, the way my father does? How do you keep the fear of death at bay? What do you think it is like, and what lies beyond it? (When I was in Trosly, you described your late niece's fear of death, and you mentioned the "place of desire." What is that?)

To me, looking at it from the age of 55 - not that the number means anything, because death approaches when it wants to - getting older looks like a discouraging journey into loneliness. Dying is the ultimate loneliness, the ultimate solitude.

I can't imagine getting older, therefore weaker and lonelier, without resenting it. The slightest health scare makes me anxious and the anxiety makes me cranky and the crankiness makes me feel bitter, even mistreated. And if I feel that way on a bad day, I can't blame my 95-year-old father for feeling worse. Last night, a still-lively 80-year-old gave me his formula for enthusiastically living in the world as you get older: "Active engagement with the future," he said. "That's the secret."

Which sounds right, if your mind hasn't pitched out the window and you still can engage. But if you physically don't have much future left, what motivates you to engage actively in it?

I think of an old pal of mine who died several years ago of bone cancer in his late 70s. He couldn't play golf any more, couldn't move. He hated his decline, and gradually he hated more and more of everything that reminded him of it - the outside, other people, even the sport of golf itself, with which he had to that point had an almost unseemly lifelong affair.

I know how he should have approached aging and the oncoming truck of death: I know that he should have taken to reading, to living in his mind, which is what he had left. But what one should do in the face of the great existential tragedy seems theoretical, especially in a secular age.

Perhaps there are hidden benefits to aging. You no longer need to worry about what you look like; your focus becomes more intense. If there is only a little time left, perhaps you know more how you want to spend it.

How do you think of yourself as you age? How do you accept the inevitable, inexorably advancing weakness and frailty - to say nothing of the randomness with which they arrive - without resenting the loss of what you were as a man, and as a human being?

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