My wife sent me an article about this 80-year-old Japanese man who just climbed Mount Everest and his rival, an 81-year-old Nepalese, who held the record for being the oldest man to do so when he was 76 and was determined to take back his record. What is wrong with these people, including my wife? Why couldn’t the two old men do like Fred Astaire who married a 37-year-old jockey, Robyn Smith, when he was 81. People say she took him for a ride but he could have danced all night. She was saddled with him for another few years but he died with a song on his lips and a smile on his face. Barbara McClintock at 81 won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1983 for her revolutionary work in genetics. She developed theories to explain the suppression and expression of genetic information from one generation of corn plants to the next—a truly “amaizeing” feat for an old timer.
Finally, Yuichiro Miura, the 80-year-old Japanese record-breaker for whom this was his third climb to the summit, said, “I think three times is enough. At this point I could not think of anything but rest.” He took an age to realise that. After Edmund Hillary reached the top of Everest on May 29, 1953, and was starting his descent he said to his friend George Low, “Well George, we’ve knocked the bastard off.” When he became “Sir” Edmund, Hillary is reputed to have said, “Once a king always a king but once a knight is enough.”
That is almost like the story about the taciturn President Calvin Coolidge. One day the President and Mrs Coolidge were visiting a government farm. Soon after their arrival they were taken off on separate tours. When Mrs Coolidge passed the chicken pens she paused to ask the man in charge if the rooster copulated more than once each day. “Dozens of times,” was the reply. “Please tell that to the President,” Mrs Coolidge requested. When the President passed the pens and was told about the roosters, he asked, “Same hen every time?” The man replied, “Oh no, Mr President, a different one each time.” The President nodded slowly, then said, “Tell that to Mrs Coolidge.”
I am going to assume that the reason my wife sent me the story has nothing to do with climbing Everest or any other natural promontory but has to do with my Nepalese descent and the fact that Miura’s rival climber from Nepal, Bahadur Sherchan just packed it in. The weather got so bad that they almost had to send out the Sherchan-rescue teams for him.
Maybe they should do that for all the rest of us who are heading into our twilight years. Some of my colleagues say, “Age is just a number” but it is a big number and as you start feeling the agony of the feet and all the other aches and pains, you realise that it is doing an even bigger number on you. Despite this some people still manage to reach triple digits. The jazz pianist and composer Eubie Blake performed until his death at one-hundred. A heavy smoker and drinker all his life, when he reached his century, Blake said, “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”
I would love to live a long and productive life but I remember interviewing Ma Pampo of Dominica just before she died in 2003 at the reputed age of 128. I asked her, “Ma Pampo, what about me, what should I do to live as long as you?” She started laughing hysterically and pointing at my emerging chubbiness. No words were necessary but the truth was that her generation worked their guts out. Another of the centenarians, a fisherman, used to row at least twice a day from Portsmouth in Dominica to and from Rouseau, a trip which takes almost an hour by car. Right now, when I cut the grass in the yard for one day I have to rest for almost a week. I envy car manufacturer Henry Ford who was able to do a handstand at the age of 75, and cosmetics queen Elizabeth Arden who could do a head-stand at the same age. Now when I wake in the morning it is increasingly difficult to do a foot—or any other kind of stand. When he was a year younger than me, Jack LaLanne, the fitness king, swam a mile in the ocean off the Florida coast pulling ten boats with 77 people in them. I wish I had known him when my engine conked out in the Gulf of Paria.
I figure that people who are into strenuous activities as they get older should learn from Kurt Wallenda’s story. He did not know when to stop. When he was 72 years old he walked a tightrope from the top floors of two Miami hotels. But then, the same year, he tried the same thing again and died.
The good news for people like me comes from the painter Titian. When in his 70s, despite all the acclaim he had already received for his art, Titian said, “I think I am beginning to learn something about painting.” I feel the same way about writing—I sometimes can see it finally coming together for me and even then, in reading back anything I have written, I invariably find errors and better ways to express my thoughts. I figure that I will go on and on like the Energizer Bunny or like the painter Henry Matisse. When he was in his 80s and could no longer sit up to paint, he attached a brush to a long stick and painted while lying in bed. I like that. When I can no longer use a laptop, I will use a bed-top and, by that time, climbing Everest would be for other people. Climbing out of bed will be enough for me.
—Tony Deyal was last seen saying that a wise man once told him that three things happen to you when you get old. First your memory goes (and that’s all he remembers).