Of course, I never really believed it would happen. Grow old, I mean. I knew it was coming, saw the evidence of it in my friends and relatives, but despite that, I acted as if aging had nothing to do with me. Even having people congratulate me on my seventy-fifth birthday doesn’t sound right to me. Either they or I must have screwed up the count somewhere along the way. Knowing the truth, of course, is better than fooling oneself, but who wants to look truth in the face every morning? Over the years, I’ve watched a few people on their deathbeds and they were not entirely convinced either about what was coming. They held on to a small hope that they would turn out to be exceptions to the rule. “You’ll get caught,” I remember telling a couple of chums in my youth who were planning to break into a garage in the neighborhood that night and carry off some tools. How they cackled! How they made fun of me! Dummies get nabbed, but not smart guys like them, they assured me; and promptly found themselves in jail the next day.
“You’ll see when you grow old,” someone was always telling us when we were young. In the days before cash machines, when we had to run to our grandmothers for emergency funds, they made us sit and listen to a lecture first. They told us how the world had changed for the worst, how when they were young, boys called their fathers Sir, and girls from good homes had the modesty to blush when spoken to by boys. I would sit at the edge of my chair, nodding in agreement, waiting for grandma to click open her purse and hand over the money. Even then, I vaguely understood that grumbling about the young was one of the few satisfactions people have left in old age. I didn’t mind hearing about the calamities that befell members of our family who failed to listen to the sensible advice I was getting—and I would get all that I could put up with, until she started sighing and telling me how I’ll come to understand everything she was saying now when I reached her age. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. Poor grandma, what a drag she was, though I have to admit today that she was right. With age, I do see things differently than I once did.
The reality of that didn’t hit me until I was almost fifty. I woke up one morning a few days before my fiftieth birthday and suddenly grasped the enormity of it. A half a century is no joke. When I was already old enough to pull the tail of our cat in Belgrade, German tanks were rolling into Paris. It wasn’t the gray hairs on my head that got me, but the deluge of memories. I remembered sitting in the first grade classroom in the fall of 1945 staring at the pictures of Marx, Stalin, and Marshal Tito that hung over the blackboard. I recalled the long forgotten brands of Balkan cigarettes; Russian, French, and American pop tunes from the war years, and the 1930s movies, of which few people alive today have any notion, that were still being shown in my childhood. So many memories came back to me at once; all of a sudden my life seemed to be that of a complete stranger. It took months to get used to it—if one can ever get used to knowing that the world and people one once knew have vanished without a trace.
In the final months of my father’s life, every time I went to visit him we talked about books. He had no patience for novels any more. History still fascinated him, and so did certain philosophers. The gloomier the thinker he was reading, the more pleased my father became, since it confirmed his long-held suspicion: the world was going to hell. Naturally, we argued about that. At least one is never bored in hell, I kept reminding him, only in paradise. I’m what you may call a part-time pessimist. I could smell the evils to come as well as he could, but I tend to be of a cheerful temperament. I wake up most mornings full of hope. Still, I can’t deny that in the thirty years since we had these conversations, I’ve grown progressively more exasperated about our species and foresee a day when I will no longer be able to bring myself to read newspapers and watch television out of concern for my mental health. Already I have to ration myself. I give Tom Friedman sixty seconds; George Will thirty. Can one, perhaps, take a broad view and say that we end up by being the opposite of what we once were? I mean, was there ever a case of a young pessimist becoming an optimist in his old age? Not unless he lost a few marbles along the way.
On certain days I feel like a car with too many miles on its speedometer. There’s a knock in the engine, the radiator overheats, the oil leaks, the body is rusty, the upholstery is ripped and stained, one windshield wiper doesn’t work, and the muffler is full of holes. “Don’t worry about it,” my Doc says. He insists that I’m in terrific shape despite high blood pressure, old-age diabetes, and growing deafness in both ears. He sounds like a used car salesman to me, trying to get rid of a car that’s ready for the junk yard, but I lap up his words all the same, and speed away after the checkup singing at the top of my voice and trailing a cloud of black smoke from the exhaust.
At four o’clock in the morning, after a night of tossing and turning, I’m not so cocky. I go and squint at my face in the bathroom mirror and don’t like what I see. Even Peter Lorre playing a child murderer in that 1931 German movie was more wholesome to behold.
Recently a reviewer complained that my new book of poems is much too preoccupied with death. He appeared to suggest that I ought to be more upbeat, dispensing serene wisdom in the autumn of my life, instead of reminding readers every chance I get of their mortality. Just you wait, I said to myself, till you reach my age and start going to funerals of your friends. Nobody warns us about that when we are young, and even if they ever did, it goes in one ear and out the other.
The fact of the matter is, other people are not much interested in an individual’s lifetime experience and what has been learned from it. And who can blame them? Even for the old, experience only serves to torment the mind on sleepless nights. Sooner or later, everyone with a long memory comes up against his or her own Grand Inquisitor. (A black robe and hood, incidentally, is no longer mandatory.) Tonight, mine wears sunglasses and is painting her nails red as she asks her questions:
You once said that Hitler and Stalin were your travel agents. Does that mean that you have to thank them both for what you have become?
I’ve been racking my brains about that this very night, Miss.
And what about God?
I thank God there is no God to see what we’ve done to the world.
What about the devil?
I saw him yesterday on TV kissing babies and grinning ear to ear.
You are not making any sense, Mister, she says to me. How is it possible to believe in the Devil and not in God and then go around crossing yourself from time to time?
I agree with you Miss, I tell her. Making the sign of the cross must be an inherited habit with me, since I come from a long line of village priests.
Once she stops pestering me, I steal a peek at the clock and can’t believe my eyes. They say that time goes faster after you pass sixty. No question about it, it’s true. Where are the long, lazy summers of my youth when I sat moping from morning till night unable to think of anything interesting to do? I recollect walking up to a mirror and repeating with greater and greater conviction, “Life is boring.” On such days, the old clock barely budged, just to spite me. You fool, I’m thinking today, that was pure bliss. The mystery of happiness was right there in that cheap clock your mother bought at Woolworth. Time graciously came to a stop in it; eternity threw open its doors and you hesitated or grew wary on its threshold and breathed a sigh of relief when the door shut in your face and the hand of the clock moved on.