This place called old age

Sue Wootton


Renée is one of New Zealand’s most admired playwrights and novelists, the author of eight novels and over twenty plays. She writes direct, clear-sighted social histories, threaded through with humour and with forthright tenderness. Her stories often follow strong, capable women carving good lives for themselves and their dependents in the face of hardship or injustice. I was privileged last week to be present at the Dunedin launch of her memoir, These Two Hands. In person, and on the page, Renée is witty, irreverent, intelligent, moving and utterly inspiring. I defy you to read her memoir and not want to claim your own life with words, passion and delight. These Two Hands is a tonic and a treasure, like its author. Here, from These Two Hands, is Renée on “being old”:

Being old. What’s it like? How does it feel? How do you do it? There are no maps, no guidelines, you have to make your own way. A lot depends on your idea of what being old means. I had no examples in my family because they nearly all died early, and Puti Mary, who lived to seventy-three, and Emmanuel, ninety-three, were before my time. Although they could only have told me how they managed, not how I should.

These Two HandsI have never been good at reading maps and even if I was, there are no charted pathways for this one. Ours is the first for each of us and no other map will be exactly like it. I didn’t have any plans for being old – I just got here because I lived long enough. What this odyssey is like is largely up to me.

I’ve arrived at this place called old age. It’s not uncom­fortable. It’s like it’s always been waiting in the wings. When I hear politicians and others refer to me as ‘the elderly’ like we’re all the same height, the same size and genderless – the other – then I feel like having a tantrum. Saying ‘I’m old’ has vigour. There’s a faint little tinge of ‘so what?’ about it.

The truth is we old people are a motley bunch. We differ in health, income, education, working lives, our taste in clothes, our physical ailments, our physical activities (or not), our desires, the way we deliberately challenge our brains (or not), whether we love technology (or not), whether we like reading or watching TV, whether we are social or antisocial or somewhere in between. We differ in our sexuality and how we meet sexual desire – I’m under the ‘girls can do anything’ umbrella.

My physical decline is slow but noticeable. When I was seventy-nine I came to live in Ōtaki and made a garden. I couldn’t do that now without a lot more help than I needed then. I’m a better and more adventurous cook than I was at seventy-nine (I say this every year), and now that I’ve got a food mixer with a dough hook, I enjoy making and eating my own bread. My skin is more lined and my hair greyer. My eyes always got tired when I read too long. Too long meant all day and half the night. Now it means half a day and a little bit of the evening. I have age-related macular degeneration and although I’m told I’ll always be able to find my way around, reading and working will become more of a trial for my eyes.

Work is still a pleasure and I still have the willpower to delete large chunks of my writing and start again if it’s not the way I want it. I am mortified to discover I left typos in a printed book when I thought I’d done a good job of proofreading it, but that’s a different matter. A lesson too. Won’t allow that to happen again. ‘Pay a proofreader and look happy about it’ will be my motto. So obviously I still make mistakes.

I still teach and I can make a joke against myself and say I like being the boss, but really it’s more the adventure, the excitement, the thrill of seeing something I say click in someone else’s mind. I can walk briskly on the flat but I’m unsteady going downhill or up and down steps. If there’s a rail or an arm I’m much happier. A friend, Marilyn, gave me a walking stick this Christmas. She said I needed one with a bit of style and she did all her homework, and lo, that’s what I’ve got.

I am often appalled at my own ignorance. For example, I knew nothing about the gut. No teacher or medical professional mentioned it until I got something wrong ‘in the gut’. I realised I knew very little about this eight or so metres of intestine until it started giving me problems. I now think everyone, at any age, should learn about the gut because it’s a hundred to one you’ll have a problem with its workings at some stage. Next to the brain, the gut is possibly our most important organ. When we say ‘I’ve got a sore stomach’, we often mean the gut area. Old age is a whole lot easier if you understand the workings of that part of the body, why it goes on strike sometimes, why it overworks other times.

My brain has got better. I said this at fifty and now again in my late eighties. The reason for this, I am convinced, is that I feed it. I work it. I ask a lot of it. It forgets the occasional word. Like what is the word when you use the first letters as shorthand for the name of an organisation, such as UNESCO. Antonym? No. At least I know that’s not right. Think. Go on, think. Acronym. Whoo – I can feel the relief right down to my toes.

My joints, hips, knees, ankles are sore most of the time. I still walk every day and I’m on my feet a lot at home. I take pills for blood pressure, Panadol for pain in my neck if it’s during the day and codeine at night if it’s severe. Naturally every damn pill makes you constipated. My brain took a while to accept this as a ‘here to stay’ problem that had to be dealt with, but good little machine that it is, it eventually got the message. I have stronger drugs for the neck pain I get (very common, half the world has neck pain) but very rarely take them because I don’t like how they make me feel. I am taking Tamoxifen as a barrier to cancer coming back. It won’t necessarily stop it because it depends where it appears in my body, but it’s a safeguard. Sort of. Tamoxifen tablets have brought back some menopausal symptoms. Heigh-ho. Swings and roundabouts.

It’s been interesting over the last couple of months to dress for a different shape and to realise that there are now a few fabrics the scarred skin on my chest will not accept. Two garments, one I bought new before I had the operation and one I’ve had for a while and always liked, have, both times I’ve worn them, became so unbearable against my skin I’ve had to rip them off and find something else. However, this new shape is not a result of being old, it’s the result of cancer and that can happen at any age.

A while ago I realised it was senseless to beat myself up when I left something in the bedroom instead of bringing it through with me to my workroom or the laundry. I should be telling myself all movement is good because it is. I should be saying to myself ‘well done’, when I forget to take the clothes through to the laundry and have to go back for them, or when I walk away without the cup that held my morning tea instead of carrying it through to the sink to be washed. All movement is good.

Renée at launch of These Two Hands at the Dunedin Pioneer Hall, 24 October 2017

Walking out with a banana skin to throw under a rose is good, walking to the letterbox is good, and no need to try and do everything in one trip. Walking to the library is good, although I had to learn that lugging a heavy load of books home in my arms is now just plain silly. Use your brain, I tell myself. Make two trips or use the trolley. Yes, I, who once dismissed Chris’ suggestion with a contemptuous shake of the head, now have a shopping trolley, and am glad of it to lug home my heavy groceries or books.

These two hands that have done so much for me are still active – tapping the keys has probably seen to that – they still prune and weed, and they still cook and bake, although the kitchen bench seems higher and my arms get sore if I stand there too long. I have help in the house two hours a week and help in the garden two hours a week when the weather’s right. I figure I’d have to pay one way or the other and this is a way of making sure I stay here as long as I need to.

So that’s how I am. How do I feel about it? I feel lucky.”

Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus.

The extract above is reproduced with permission from These Two Hands (Mākaro Press, 2017), by Renée.

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