Oct. 9 is a very ordinary date for some, but a very special one for me. It’s the birthday of two people I love very much indeed: my late mother and my son Oliver. Ten years ago, shortly before mum died, they managed to spend Oct. 9 together. One with so much to look forward to, with all of the world’s possibilities at his fingertips, the other with so much to look back upon, her body weighed down with arthritis and cloudiness of mind. Yet both perfect in their own way. How odd it is that we pick an arbitrary period of our existence, youth, and idolize it, transform it into an icon to be worshipped. We obsess about what we call anti-ageing, as if raging against the storm will somehow change the weather. Not that we should embrace illness, but we can welcome maturity and growing old as part of a greater, wonderful process.
The great British scholar C.S. Lewis said that pain was God’s megaphone to wake an indifferent world. I would argue that growing old is perhaps the great reminder that we are each responsible for matters other than our own gratification. Growing old should hold no fear for us if we understand it, any more than childhood should frighten us. Of course there is the slowing down of our bodies, and certainly the loss of loved ones. But there is also the pride in having lived the good life, the true life, the life that ought to be. That, sadly, may well count for less today than in any other period in history.
I considered all this those 10 years ago as I looked at the photograph on our mantle-piece taken on my parents’ wedding day, so long ago. I showed it to Oliver. He looked at it, and then at his grandma. A pause, then: “You were very beautiful in that photo,” he said about the woman of half-a-century ago. Then he thought for a few moments. “And you still are.” He thinks again. “Just different.” Then Oliver asked a question to the tired but happy lady sitting in the big leather chair. “Grandma, what’s it like being old?” The gray-haired lady herself thought for a few moments, and then replied to the little boy in a soccer shirt. “It’s like being young I suppose.” A pause. “Just different.” The lady and the child laugh.
It’s so interesting that they’re amused by similar things, and that they delight in the smallness rather than in the largeness of life. Neither are infected by the cynicism that so burdens the rest of us. They see joy and goodness in the empty places, while we only appreciate them when they are full. Their love is unconditional. They give it and they need it. At each end of life’s journey there is an expectation of warmth and affection. Not a demand but an expectation. The colours at the ends of this glorious rainbow are more bold and alive than in the middle, and they positively glow.
When Oliver came home from school later in the week, on that precise Oct. 9, he could barely contain his excitement. This is, after all, was the greatest ninth birthday he has ever had. He jumps into the house, dances into the room, and then he sees his grandma sitting alone on the sofa, with her eyes tightly closed. He looks, he hesitates, and then he walks towards the lady. He takes hold of her hand very gently, but she feels the sensation and her eyes open. As soon as she sees who it is, her eyes form an enormous smile. “Oh” she says, “I was having such a lovely dream. All my friends were in it. Your grandpa was there too. It was lovely.” His grandpa, my dad, her husband, had died two years earlier.
Oliver helps her out of the chair, she stands up, and the two of them walk together into the garden. They are chatting. Oliver stops and bends down to the flowers to smell them, and then he asks what their names are. His grandma tells him. “You’re so clever grandma”, he says, “so really clever.” No, she replies, I’m just old. “Gosh, that’s amazing,” says Oli. “I think I’d like to be old one day.” You will, she says, you will. Then small tears fill her eyes. Tears not of sorrow but of satisfaction.
Michael Coren’s new book is Heresy: Ten Lies They Spread About Christianity. He can be booked for speaking at www.michaelcoren.com