The human body appears to liquefy with age. It actually grows more arid, but it seems to slowly melt into the earth. This metamorphosis, which seems to slowly drag every cell with it, is visually compelling. Its physical effects are so unlike the beauty of youth that they are often mistaken for its opposite.
If one takes the separate features of the old – the skin, the hair, the eyes, the posture – one finds almost no support for the argument that age possesses its own beauty. But, the whole often conveys something the parts do not.
What is this something?
When I was in college, I established a friendship with an elderly Russian woman named Mrs. Gunther. I would go to the grocery store for her once a week and then sit for awhile in her apartment. Life among the young and the young only is a sterile place. I deliberately sought her out and she saved me from exile in this ghetto of youth.
From old photographs I saw she had been a beautiful woman when young, but not nearly as beautiful, I thought, as she was old. I tried to account for what this beauty was exactly and decided it was not in any one feature, but was an overall luminosity. I cannot say this came from conventional happiness or exuberance. It seemed to emanate from some hidden chemistry between character and time.
Surely, this light, which is apparent in others of advanced age, explains the piety shown toward the old in traditional cultures. This piety comes from a sense of gratitude and duty, but it also perceives old age as a good in and of itself. This radiance is intrinsically good. To merely live in its presence is to live a better life in the way living in the presence of natural beauty is to live a better life.
There was an elderly woman named Frances who lived at the bottom of our hill not many years ago. She lived in a condition of inconceivable isolation. She did not own a car or drive, a dangerous thing in American suburbia, and her children apparently resented her and never visited or offered help. As her poverty increased, she had almost superhuman fortitude. I never heard her complain about her tragic circumstances.
A neighbor found her one day nearly unconscious in her bed and she died in the hospital a few days later. I saw her daughter afterward when she came to clean out the house and get it ready for sale. It seemed strange that she had missed out on one of the deepest pleasures of life: to bask in the luminosity of one’s own parents. Even those who have a troubled past can benefit from this radiance, which magically obliterates the past.
It’s true not all old people cast this light. In some cases, there is nothing and in others, there is only a pervading darkness. To walk into such a life as the latter is to enter a cave. Water seeps from invisible springs like tears running down stone walls. This is embittered old age, a tense and unconcealed struggle against hope. There is almost nothing one can do, except honor the possibility of change.
I have known the antithesis of this extreme darkness, a luminosity of such vividness it is almost confusing. To enter a place in which such an old person exists is similar to walking into a room in which a single crystal hangs. Lit from behind, the crystal radiates the whole spectrum of colors onto the walls.
I know an ancient woman in her mid-90’s who weighs 85 pounds and is no longer capable of caring for herself. Her daughter and son-in law have moved in and they sleep in her room upstairs while she is confined to the first floor. She is depressed because she doesn’t want to trouble anyone and also because she can no longer work in her yard. She says she wants to die as soon as possible.
It’s wrong for the old to court or artificially hasten death. They need to stay as long as possible to shed their light or exhibit their darkness, even if it appears no one is benefiting. The young and middle-aged depend not on their energy or their coherence, but on their existence.
The daughter is there to feed this ancient woman, who is tiny and bird-like; to help her walk around and to keep her company. That is good and as it should be. In return, her daughter and son-in-law receive the powerful light this small woman so clearly possesses. It illuminates the bare facts of existence in a way few things can.