04/12/2012 01:11 pm ET Updated Jun 12, 2012

An Old Man -- Me?

It feels odd being called an old man, even now that I'm pushing eighty. When I was young, I thought of my life as an adventurous novel, a Bildungsroman with me, of course, the hero, and everyone else -- relatives, friends, classmates -- in supporting roles. I stayed young, at least in my own head, for quite some time. Well into my forties, middle-aged described someone ten years older. Then I began to notice that young people on the street, even girls, were walking faster, overtaking me effortlessly. I'd not realized that slowing down was to be understood literally. Of course, it did become difficult, at sixty and beyond, to maintain the illusion of youth or even middle age. At family gatherings, with grandchildren the center of attention, I became one of the elders, obviously on the periphery, no longer a major character. At times my back ached, my bones and muscles rebelled, my bowels became less predictable, and walking any distance could be a chore. Always a talker and spinner of yarns, I found I had less to say.

One early sign that I was over the hill was when attractive women, rather than avoiding eye contact, looked me straight in the eye and smiled; at a further stage, check-out girls in supermarkets began to call me honey. Even young men would hold a door for me, and a young mother once cautioned her toddler, "Be careful, it's an old man!" An old man, no longer a player in the comedy of gender, I'd become neuter. There were also ironies that accompanied aging: always an enthusiastic sojourner abroad, particularly to academic conferences, now that I have ample time, I don't care to travel any distance; always an enthusiastic, if mediocre, golfer, I can no longer walk a course; a lifelong sailboat enthusiast, I do not trust myself to manage a boat. I see old friends, companions, rivals and colleagues, one after another, mentioned in brief obituaries as they pass quietly from the scene. Beyond the old saw that aging isn't all that bad when you consider the alternative, is there anything positive about growing old?

One plus, obviously, is that I will not die young, unfulfilled, before having had a chance to mature and enjoy a full life. When I reached the biblical three score and ten, the rest of life, I knew, with a bit of luck, would be icing on the cake. Once my children were grown and had children of their own, my wife and I no longer bore the weight of responsibility for our hostages to fortune. After retirement, I learned to my chagrin that the university and the honors program that had consumed so much of my energy and enthusiasm for so many years were managing to survive without me, and that I was surviving quite well without them! Now, the odds are that I will have avoided life's greatest blow, the death of a child, or of the one who, as the years go by, I have come increasingly to love, admire and depend upon, my wife of more than half a century, first met at a summer camp when she was fifteen. And, of course, the future is still open, though I think of it in days and weeks rather than years.

From the perspective of age, things which once seemed so important for good or for ill -- the award, the rejection, the triumph -- no longer seem to be mountains of achievement or depths of despondency but just small bumps in a fairly even road. Now that I'm not in the thoughts of most former students and colleagues, having been named distinguished professor or elected president of the organization or failing to publish the Big Book counts for little or nothing. Though I would hardly think of setting sail for some further adventure like Tennyson's Ulysses, I do sit at my computer to comment curmudgeonly on the news or add occasionally to my blog. And even though it's not expected of me -- perhaps because it's not expected of me -- I spend some time most days working on a book. The result thus far has been a mystery novel, Double Trouble, which about a hundred people have read, and a book of recollections, Serendipity, which has attracted about half that number of readers, mostly family. I'm leisurely working on a sequel to my mystery, but there's no hurry, no deadline. Though it hardly matters whether the book is published, I'm still curious about what my characters will do next.

In the Palazzo Reale outside Palermo on the altar of the chapel, there is a large image of Christ's countenance, which appears stern and angry from a distance but which, it is said, grows more gentle and kindly as the viewer approaches. The same I find to be true of representations of Death. When young, I was subjected by the Jesuits to baroque sermons almost identical to those suffered through by Joyce's Stephen Daedalus. In them, heaven was given short shrift, but the everlasting and excruciating pains of hell were vividly rendered. Once I realized that these were sadistic fantasies, Death as a skull or skeleton or a Grim Reaper in black grew more distant, less frightful and at times a bit comic. After a few trips to the hospital with symptoms of what might have been a terminal illness, I realized that death would be no worse than falling asleep. Just as I did not regret the centuries before my birth, so I would not miss the years after my departure. Only the living suffer pain, and I mourn for those I will inevitably leave behind. I can now almost accept Walt Whitman's exultant threnody:

Come, lovely and soothing Death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later, delicate Death.

Dark Mother, always gliding near, with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?
Then I chant it for thee -- I glorify thee above all;
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.

Though I am reluctant to leave a world that is still curious and ample, that remains blessed with people I cherish, it was these verses that came to me as I sat with my wife recently at a Buddhist funeral, listening to a eulogy for a dear friend. When the instructor of his yoga class began to repeat himself, the loving wife of the deceased ended the ceremony. "Ring the gong again," she said, "-- and laugh."