05/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Musings on Swine Flu: Birth and Death, the Circle of Life

The suddenness of the swine-flu epidemic, and the talk of the very old and the very young, made me think of something I saw a few years ago. I watched a video at the Tate Gallery in London, that massive, former electric plant on the Thames. It was Nantes Tryptych by Bill Viola (you can see a still, but the artist has not released the whole work -- I've looked). Anyway, a split screen showed a dying old woman on one side, and a woman giving birth on the other, and the two were synchronized so that the moment of birth and death would be simultaneous.

The video took 20 minutes and I didn't have 20 minutes to stay at one installation, but I couldn't stop watching, standing alone in the dark little space.

The gaunt old lady on the right screen lay barely breathing. And the young woman giving birth on the left screen writhed and called out and pushed and strained.

And finally at the same moment the baby was born, wailing, pouring air into his lungs, and the old lady died silently, her small, silent breaths fading into stillness.

I remembered the births I had experienced, of my sons and one of my granddaughters. And the two times I had been at a dying person's bedside as they slipped peacefully away.

I stood in silence for a minute after the screen went dark, and I thought about the parallels of the newborn and almost gone: no hair, diapers, no teeth, inability to walk, weak immunity, dependency. And the miracle and the natural progression of the circle of life.

And I thought of Shakespeare's "Seven Ages of Man," from As You Like It. At first, "the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms." And the last phase, "second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

And I went out of the Tate and into the swirling crowds, filled with people at every stage. Children running with their backpacks. Toddlers pushed in strollers by young mums, balding barrister-types hurrying along with their briefcases and brollies. And I pondered life and age. And then I just let it go. I had to meet someone.

Time was short. And I realized that more than I had going into the Tate.

The Seven Ages of Man

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then, the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice
In fair round belly, with good capon lin'd,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose, and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well sav'd, a world too wide,
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again towards childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Don't go for the long version? Shakespeare's words were compressed into a limerick by the historian Robert Conquest:

Seven ages: first puking and mewling,
Then very pissed off with your schooling,
Then fucks and then fights,
Then judging chaps' rights,
Then sitting in slippers, then drooling.