It always makes me nervous when people get too cheerful, so the dauntless, chin-up title and the jacket claim that this book is "upbeat" about old age got me worrying that Harriet Robey would be some kind of geriatric gym teacher with a whistle around her neck, urging us into the Boston Marathon as we totter toward the grave.
Luckily, her own words come closer to the mark: "I try to share with my fellow inmates in the Prison of Old Age some of the techniques and tricks that I've found useful in picking the locks of the cells we old build for ourselves--or unthinkingly allow others to build for us."
The cell that Harriet Robey inhabits--in permanent pain from a lower back condition and virtually blind--would make a lot of 80-year-olds think they're getting off easy. Even the golden days of her youth were no picnic, but they may have conditioned her for the battles of her twilight years. Her strict New England girlhood, "brought up on counsels of perfection, always on trial and usually guilty," had all the dark and savage undercurrents of "Ethan Frome." Her marriage is described in third-person italics, as though it had happened to somebody else. "A man married a maid and for each it was the first overwhelming passionate love." Six weeks after the wedding she realized that her passion had been "a flash fire that had consumed itself. Ashes only were left and all one long summer night she sifted these ashes through her fingers in her mind and looked into the dark of the years ahead."
The marriage endured, as such marriages often do, and eventually took on a life force of its own, drawing her and Alec Robey into a harmonious companionship that "happier" couples would be lucky to match. But getting there could hardly have been much fun. She wanted lots of children; he wanted none. They wound up with four. He hated Christmas and made a point of forgetting their grandchildren's names. When their second child was born in the front seat of the car en route to the hospital, the sole comment of her "quintessential" mother-in-law was: "It isn't done!"
These and other joys got her so depressed by the time she was 39 that she borrowed money from her parents to be psychoanalyzed. A lot of people seem to come out of that trip meaner than they went in--except no longer having to say they're sorry. But in Robey's case, it led to a new sense of purpose and a late-blooming career as a psychiatric social worker. She was at work--at age 75--when her husband suddenly died and would probably be working still if the crippling pain had not suddenly thrust her into the "Prison of Old Age."
With her body immobilized, her mind "worked like a disturbed hill of ants" as she began to explore the badly lit, ill-mapped, unfriendly, if not actually terrifying, wasteland that our society reserves for the old. She found the "self-help" books written by people too young to know what old age is like, television programs on ugly areas of life that old people can do nothing about, medical articles threatening dire diseases at every turn and advertisements about bad breath and oily hair that only heighten the anxieties of going down hill.
Determined to chart the uncharted on her own, she signs up for a Boston pain clinic, "the last institutional hope for people at the end of their ropes." The place is a sort of gulag archipelago, where relentless days of meditation, biofeedback, physical and mental therapy and group confessions lead to a "rebalance of personality . . . an acceptance and understanding of our weaknesses and our hidden sources of anger and hurt." The pain remains; you just get on with life in spite of it.
In a sort of natural progression, she moves on to the Insight Meditation Society Retreat, where the menu is vegetarian, nobody talks and the approach to pain is that "one could eventually develop a willingness to be uncomfortable, to allow pain to happen and to release body tension through it." She doesn't exactly catch this nirvana on the first pass, but there were moments, "as I gradually stilled that buzzing vagabond mind of mine, and calm began to come, I even lost the sensation of having hands or legs, or a body, and then once or twice of even having a me."
By the time she learns she is going blind, her responses are so trained that she sets about "blindproofing" her house as though she were packing for Europe, or getting ready for guests. When she reaches out for society's offerings for the blind, she finds that the large-type books are "soft" reading, "which fitted in nicely with the prevailing idea of the elderly or the eye-handicapped as universally dumb or reluctant to be stimulated." Recordings for the Blind, with its 50,000 cassettes of classic or scholarly works, restored her faith. "Looking at that catalogue, I might have been looking at the world's first sunrise."
As her guidebook ends, Harriet Robey realizes the journey could get rougher down the road. "The time may come for me, too, when the bladder, bowels, heart, blood pressure, veins, bones and digestion all misbehave, misact, miscue: any or all of them. Singly, or all at once." But her plans are already set. If her book is still in print, "I would loan it to myself and say, 'Can't you remember?' "