You were a coal miner, you were a healthcare worker, you were a police officer, you were an dreamer, you were an insects collector, etc. then you turned 65*. There onwards, you were old. Just old. Because it depicts amazingly well this odd and sad transition, I illustrate this post with one of the pictures of a series by Tom Hussey called Reflections. I invite you to have a look at his amazing series, after reading this post, as it will shed a particular light on these photos.
In the evenings of my holiday cycling tour in Western England in the past weeks, I read this short Goncourt price winning book by Romain Gary, the Life Before Us (La Vie Devant Soi, 1975, original in French). One may say that I see ageing and gerontology everywhere (and one may be right), but this book depicted ageing in a way I had not read before, i.e. in a poetic yet harsh way, unknown to my eyes. I want to share this experience because beyond being a wonderfully written and amazingly humorous book, it sharply describes the view of a young boy on ageing and dementia of his almost-legal guardian, Madame Rosa.
The Life Before Us describes an atypical Parisian household of the 1960s, ruled by the impressive Jewish and former prostitute, Madame Rosa, who after retiring had decided to provide shelter to the unexpected and often unwanted offspring of neighbouring prostitutes. Momo, the muslim-raised narrator, has lived with Madame Rosa as long as he can remember. The older Madame Rosa gets the more he loves her despite describing her in the most unusual and – let’s face it – undignified ways. After being cared for, he progressively becomes carer for her with a wholehearted compassion and dedication that only few people are capable of.
The writing style as well as word choices really triggered my curiosity about the author, Romain Gary and his relationship to ageing. I was puzzled while reading his Wikipedia biography and particularly the story of one interview. When asked about ageing, he answered: “catastrophy. But it will never happen to me. Never. I Figure that it must be a horrible thing but as I am incapable of ageing, I made a deal with the man up there, you know? I made a deal in which I will never age” (1). Two years later, aged 66, Gary shot himself.
Despite showing ageing in some of its most terrible features, Gary also shows love, solidarity and in a way, beauty around the ageing process. I had thought that he had perceived a certain poetry in becoming dependent and being cared for by loved ones. I thought there was a bound between love and life. However, now that I think of it, Momo, in his young eyes, deplores the impossibility to “abort” a life after a certain health state (very interestingly referred to as abortion in Momo’s own words). He blames doctors who will do anything to make a life last as long as possible even after having become a “vegetable”. Gary’s suicide is in this respect very coherent as he seemed to ensure full control over the end of his life especially if it came to dementia.
This post resonates with Robin Williams’ suicide following the release of the information that he was suffering from early stages of Parkinson’s disease (and a long-lasting depression). It shows that information and education about ageing is necessary, in regards to medical progresses and quality of life. I am not denying the difficulties of ageing with such diagnoses, but I cannot help but feel that in both Gary’s and Williams’ cases, numerous years of high quality life were wasted because of the fear of ageing.
Ageing apart, I can only and strongly recommend ready this amazing book.
Eternal gratitude to Clémentine Motard who introduced me to this book! 🙂
(1) Romain Gary, L’Affaire homme, « Vingt questions à Romain Gary », Gallimard, coll. « Folio », F8, 2006.