“Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship,
in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.
Although we all prefer to use the good passport,
sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell,
to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
Susan Sontag once wrote that we are denizens of two kingdoms: the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick, and sooner or later we make good on that dual citizenship. Having had – thankfully brief to date – a taste of the latter, it is sobering to consider what life must be like for those who find themselves permanent citizens through happenstance of birth, illness or accident, or simply as consequence of an innocent seeming walk along the narrowing hallways of time and age, as life softly takes us by the elbow to guide us from the first kingdom to the second.
For the currently fortunate, this future hovers at the edge of idle observation, whether this is marvelling at the stooped and stiffened back of a stranger, curved like a frozen claw over their walker, to glumly noticing the encroaching stiffness of our beloved and elderly family and friends. For the young and able-bodied, these thoughts may arise for a moment, a brief second of imagined citizenry in the second kingdom, yet this is nowhere near to the reality of what it must be like to be there for a minute, an hour, a day, or the rest of one’s life. It is as though a bird is asked to imagine a world in which it could not fly anymore. Yet, should we live long enough to enter the second kingdom simply by nature of the passage of time – without the accelerated march of illness or accident – its subdued domain quietly waits for us all in various forms. This journey must be hard and humbling, and it must take great determination to move beyond feeling a sense of perpetual loss. How could one not lament, and forever see the first kingdom as our nostalgic normal, our true self? How could one not look back at this golden time like Eurydice, looking back over and over again despite the fact it will do no good and perhaps even generate harm? How do we not experience continual nostalgia for what we once had when our bodies were free and fully expressed, and we could soar in the world like we once did?
Fundamentally, when we grieve the superficial loss of beauty and youth we are more deeply grieving the eventual loss of agility, mobility, the decline of function and – for some or even most – the increased onset of discomfort and of pain as a constant companion. “Old age ain’t no place for sissies”, it is said. How true, for it must take deep will, a grateful spirit and determined optimism to persist if not to thrive, if or when one’s bodily temple starts to falter, to crumble at the edges and decay at the seams. Those among us that move, determined and resolute, like curved claws, inching their way grimly, focused on the next step along a harried sidewalk, carry great burdens that many of us still can only have a glimmer of, a faint unease of warning in the distance which we catch with a corner of eye while we bound blithely by.
“Just you wait,” I’m sure some of these elders say, quietly and peacefully in their heads or under their breaths, with patience, experience and perspective, while they turtle along beside the rabbit to the same finish line for all.