Miles To Go
When I learned that Pauline O’Regan had written a book on ageing called Miles To Go, I thought damn, it’s bad enough being jolted or jollied by strangers – but a friend? I knew I would read it. I read them all. I read the ones who, with irritating detail, tell how the writer climbed Mt Everest, without Sherpa or oxygen, when she was 84, and those who opine that if I think old age is hell, it will be, but if I think I’m going to love every wonderful minute, bliss awaits. Yeah right.
Pauline O’Regan has always written about journeys. A Changing Order is an account of a group of nuns who got to a crossroads and decided to take the path “less travelled by”; Community explores the world and work of volunteer workers in New Zealand; Aunts and Windmill, voyages into her past, and There is Hope for a Tree searches for understanding of the bitter divisions between the north and south of Ireland, celebrating the warmth and love she found there as well.
In Miles To Go, she casts an affectionate yet realistic eye over the final journey we will all make. There are no maps, no signposts, we have no idea how long it will take us to travel this most uncharted highway of all. We know the destination of course, what we don’t know is whether it will be temperate and sunny, the motel Clean and Comfy with Cheap Rates or whether we’ll end up feeling the heat and wishing we’d made other arrangements.
Lucidly, with wry wit, humour and self-knowledge, she stares (macular degeneration notwithstanding) unflinchingly at the pitfalls, the perils, the pleasures of ageing. We follow our guide, laughing out loud at some of the experiences we share – the losing of things, in her case a hearing aid, in mine, a crucial piece of paper with dates on it that I need desperately right now. She steps on the hearing aid, and it breaks; I walk around in circles raging and find the paper a week or two later under the muesli jar. I have the better end of that deal, my loss is between me and my muesli; O’Regan’s has to be explained to various experts, to whom friends must drive her, and, after all that, the new one is never the same. With our guide, we traverse the inevitable changes: friends move away or die, we develop an overwhelming desire to read the bereavement notices, we contemplate funeral services, shift to a smaller place and either cram everything into it, or shed stuff, feeling huge relief as the van, full of equally happy rellies, disappears down the drive.
We learn to live with a loneliness that sets up camp in our back yards, and even though, as O’Regan says, “death offers incontrovertible evidence that one’s body is in very bad shape”, we’ll still probably try and talk him out of it, as Billy Collins does in his poem My Number: “Did you have any trouble with the directions?/I will ask, as I start talking my way out of this.” There is “the sense of hidden danger that comes with living near the edge … it might be tomorrow or the day after”. Self-indulgence is out, there is no time for boredom, apathy, indifference or bitterness. “It’s a pity,” she says, “that we have to wait to become old before we put a value on time.” Spring blossoms cannot be taken for granted, you learn the meaning of reflux and that suppositories have nothing to do with supposing, that incontinence has no relationship to loose morals.
She talks of stamina, sex and spirituality, about the truth that lies in the old saying, only the years can tell the story that the days cannot know:
You know you have reached middle age when you bend down to tie up your shoes and look around to see what else you can do while you’re down there…(in) old age either you can’t bend down to tie up your shoes at all, or, if you can, you need all your concentration to work out how best to straighten up afterwards.
For me, it’s not so much that I can’t tie up shoelaces. It’s that old woman who has parked herself in my mirror and refuses to budge. I’ve tried sneaking up on her but she’s too quick for me.
Pauline O’Regan lovingly assures us that while this particular journey might be lonely and expensive, and bring unwelcome changes both emotional and physical, it will definitely be intriguing, challenging, funny and something we wouldn’t have missed for the world. I believe her.
Renée is a Wellington playwright and novelist.