How often in one’s life does one get the chance to live out, even test, something one has long loved from the world of literature? And is it ever as one expects?
For a long time my favorite Dickens novel has been Great Expectations and within it my two favorite characters were always Joe Gargery and Mr. Wemmick’s father, the so called “Aged Parent”, or “Aged P”. There was something about the father-adult child relationship that I found touching, perhaps sentimentally so since in my life I cannot say that my own was unambiguous. Joe’s relationship to Pip, his inability to be bitter, his embodiment of forgiveness and unencumbered love, still moves me to tears despite decades of rereading. With Mr. Wemmick’s “Aged P”, clearly intended as a comic figure, it is something else. How charming, how funny, to be able to enjoy a relationship with this father, so deaf that he cannot possibly engage in conversation, but requires instead only the newspaper and the occasional nod to be blissfully happy?
But life trumps literature with a bucket of cold water. I have an Aged P myself now, not father but mother, and it is borne out that life is more complicated than fiction. Watching someone’s capabilities diminish is not for the timid, all the more so if that someone is not in peaceful acceptance of her situation. And who can blame her? To have your vibrancy washed away despite your own intentions and desires cannot be anything but maddening. The warmth and good humor with which Mr. Wemmick is able to co-exist with his Aged P is dependent upon us not knowing what the Aged P himself thinks about his situation. He seems to be quite content to read his paper, accept nods, occasionally hear the cannon fire….but of course we are not given any but his son’s opinion on the matter. If the Aged P could speak, perhaps he too would rage, as Dylan Thomas has it, against the advance of old age.
And much as I would like to be gracious and humorous in the face of my mother’s diminishment, I find that I grieve for the lively, vigorous person she used to be. To be sure we can still share a hearty laugh at the indignities of nail cutting and teeth brushing, and my ineptitude at helping her, but she is not what she was. I know it and she knows it, and therein lies a sadness perhaps ignored by Mr. Dickens. In the service of good fiction he chose to look the other way, but in holding the hand of a real Aged P, one has to gaze, deeply, at the advancement of loss.
©Poets’ Sinews, 2014. Reuse with permission.