The Time of our Lives: 80s

The time of our lives: 80s
Mary Warnock, The Observer

People used to tell me that getting old was perfectly tolerable until you were 80, and then it suddenly became hell. There is some truth in this. For the first time I feel that I am an old woman, even though by today’s standards, at 83, I hardly count as seriously old, and my three sisters are older than I. But my knees are stiff, and I am inclined to hobble. I used to feel a fondness for the old women I saw about the place because they reminded me of my nanny when she was 90, and whom I loved. Now I feel a fondness because they remind me of myself; we are in the same boat. I see the world with the eyes of the old: I rejoice that I can remember the nursery gramophone (‘The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze’) and radio (In Town Tonight).

I love self-indulgently reading the diaries I kept in the 1940s. A world infinitely remote. I know that there are things I shall never do and things that I used to do and shall never do again. But it bothers me curiously little. I don’t fret that I shall never go to Kashmir or live in an exquisite Queen Anne house or learn Russian, though for years I fancied that one day I might. Even of the things that I truly loved, like riding, having babies, playing in an orchestra or sex, I think with pleasure that I understand them without inappropriate hankering. And I am hugely grateful not to have to bother whether what I eat and drink is healthy or whether I am the right weight.

I have entered not so much a second childhood as a second adolescence.People think of adolescents as perpetually miserable, embarrassed and lacking in confidence and of course the aged can feel like that sometimes. But for me, adolescence was mostly a time of blissful solitude and no responsibilities. It was a time of discovery, of poetry and Greek tragedy, music and Wordsworthian sentiments about nature. All these things seem fresher and more intense, now that I have settled for being old, and have again the solitude to enjoy them.

My husband, Geoffrey, used to tell me that it was good that he would die before I did, or I would be cheated of my natural right to be a widow. My father had died before I was born so I had never known a mother who was not a widow and she, especially after the death of her father when she became quite rich, enjoyed widowhood. There are many ways in which Geoffrey was right: I am one of nature’s widows. One huge advantage of the state is that when I bash up the car or get even the smallest scratch on it, I don’t have to creep home to confess. I either get it fixed or ignore it. It is the same with other disasters like losing one’s purse or spending money on something useless. One can forget it, and go on as if nothing had happened. One can have meals as late as one chooses, go to bed after midnight and play the same CD every night when one has a craze for it. I can even play, or pretend to play, the piano.

So I enjoy being old. Of course I think about death. I think about Geoffrey’s death and my own and that of my sisters and friends. And I am writing a book about euthanasia, which makes me think about it even more. The thing I dread is dying slowly. I could not bear the humiliation and sheer embarrassment of being ‘cared for’. All the things I value, my freedom, my solitude, my being on loving terms with my children and grandchildren – but as an equal, not as an object of pity and terror – all would be snatched away and my life would mean nothing to me. I wish profoundly that I could choose when and how to die. If I ever get as far as receiving palliative care, the one thing I shall beg for will be terminal sedation. If I couldn’t persuade my doctor to kill me, I might at least be able to persuade him to render me unconscious and never let me come round. After all, from my point of view, it would make no difference.