Diana Athill writes “Book after book has been written about being young, and even more of them about the elaborate and testing experiences that cluster round procreation, but there is not much on record about falling away.” Written at the age of 89 (she is now 91), Athill’s memoir elegantly corrects the record. Divided into 16 chapters, Athill examines what it means to be a great age in a range of topics from atheism to her fervent wish to continue driving. She describes the sad realization that the acquisition of a pug, however delightful, is unwise, as they need far more walking than her aged legs can manage. Nor, she realizes, will she see the spindly tree fern she ordered reach maturity. Admittedly, these are losses, but there are surprising gains to reaching very old age, chief among them fearless, complete honesty.
Athill was clearly unconventional even in her youth, never marrying or bearing children. Frankly enamored of sex but disinterested in any attendant marital bond, Athill freely slept with married men, reveling in sex as pure recreation, perfectly content to send her men back home to the care of wives, who did the cooking and laundry. “...I never felt guilty, because the last thing I intended or hoped for was damage to anyone’s marriage…Loyalty is not a favourite virtue of mine…When spouses are concerned, it seems to me kindness and consideration should be the key words, not loyalty, and sexual infidelity does not necessarily wipe them out.”
One may not agree with the above; still, it must be admitted that it’s a remarkable statement coming from a woman of 89.
At age 44, Athill met playwright Barry Reckford. The couple’s eight year sexual relationship evolved into a great, fond friendship: the couple has shared a flat for over 40 years, and Athill has taken on, albeit grudgingly, much of the caregiving as Reckford’s health fails. Athill had another romance after Reckford, with another married man, but then, in her 70s, her sexual desire vanished. Athill reacted by taking a greater interest in other activities—drawing, sewing, gardening, reading, and writing. She was also pulled into caring for her mother, who at 94, was nearing death.
Athill is rare in admitting what a burden caregiving can be. She notes that other women seem to have a knack for it, using the same good-natured hardwiring that easily tends infants and children. Athill has no such feeling, but she does want to care for her mother properly. After a year of anxious commuting between her London home and work (Athill did not retire until age 75), she collapsed with high blood pressure and was forced to make other arrangements, relishing her free weekends in London.
Death is never far from Athill’s thoughts. A strong atheist, she is comfortable in the face of an infinite universe while wryly admitting the benefits of living in a society policing itself via Christian tenets. Neither she nor her mother fear death; when Athill’s mother is hospitalized a final time, she dies peacefully, fully aware of herself and what is happening. Athill hopes for the same graceful exit.
With her mother’s death and the ebbing of sexuality, Athill immerses herself in other pursuits, learning dressmaking and taking life drawing, leading to some trenchant observations on the current state of art. In her life drawing class, she writes, “What you are looking at is precisely life, that inexplicable and astounding cause of our being, to which everything is possible in the way of attention and respect is due…One should become as skilful as possible in order to probe the true nature of the object one is studying.”
In January of 2002, Athill’s companion Reckford fell ill. After a yearlong bout of serious prostate trouble, Reckford’s adult-onset diabetes, long ignored, turned the corner to insulin dependency. Unfortunately Reckford, as mercilessly described by Athill, is the worst sort of elderly patient, refusing to cut down on fats or sugars or help himself in any way. He is now virtually bedridden, mentally adrift, merely skimming the crime novels he demands Athill procure for him.
“Our life,” Athill writes, “went back to being, in about equal parts, both sad and boring.” She compares caring for Reckford to a plant—the root bears little relation to the flower it produces, yet they are one and the same. So it is she cares for this Reckford, despite his being very different from the man she once loved. “One doesn’t…make a choice between alternatives because there doesn’t seem to be an alternative. Perhaps a wonderfully unselfish person…gets satisfaction from making a good job of it. If you are a selfish one, you manage by contriving as many escapes and compensations as you can while still staying on the job.”
Fortunately, two of Athill’s great escapes are reading and writing. Fiction has lost its allure for her, but nonfiction—facts—continue to fascinate. She is a regular contributor to the Literary Review and, more importantly, has become a memoirist. Athill describes her late blossoming into writing as a tremendous, unexpected gift: absolutely delicious. (Italics author’s.)
One finishes this beautifully written book having learned two facts about a happy old age. The first is optimism will carry you further than negativity. The second is the importance of good health: while Athill suffers from hearing loss and difficulty walking, she is otherwise in enviably good shape, experiencing none of the chronic ailments that can make old age unpleasant.
Certainly one can surmount some of age’s travails with cheerful attitude, as Athill has, and if we have a choice, Athill’s mien is eminently preferable to Reckford’s path, which seems the more common route. In accepting the inevitability of ageing (if we are lucky), we are wise to look to Athill’s memoir as a kind of guidebook, and relish the good fortune of growing old, rather than rue it.