I've just started Penelope Lively's memoir Ammonites and Leaping Fish, I had not heard of this book and am glad that artist and writer Nancy nudged me in its direction. For a long time, I've been reading about South Asia in 1940s and 1950s in an attempt to put together some kind of fictionalised version of my father, and Nancy told me Penelope talks about Suez in 1950s, which is perfect as my dad travelled by ship from Pakistan to UK at least once in that decade (I even found the passenger list). I'm not yet at the Suez part, but Penelope's chapter on old age makes me smile. Talking about adapting to old age - she is 80 - she says:
You get used to it. And that surprises me. You get used to diminishment, to a body that is stalled, an impediment? Well, yes, you do. An alter ego is amazed, aghast perhaps - myself in the roaring forties, when robust health was an assumption, a given, something you barely noticed because it was always there. Acceptance has set in, somehow, has crept up on you, which is just as well, because the alternative - perpetual rage and resentment - would not help matters. You are now this other person, your earlier selves are out there, familiar, well remembered, but you have to come to terms with a different incarnation.
Getting used to a different incarnation is, of course, very different when you are young and the catastrophe of illness has punched into your life. I always say it takes about a decade to get used to having ME. That's probably how long it took me. In The State of Me when Helen is still horribly ill, aged 21, in bed, she lists 10 things about her old life:
6. Looking at photos of other self in other life. Tracing finger over old self, a smiling girl in a hockey team. My hockey stick lay like a corpse in the back of my cupboard, club foot poking through my clothes, reminding me of my frailty. I had tried to throw it out twice, but Nab had brought it back in.And in real life I didn't really ever have difficulty accepting, it just was, though at the beginning, when acutely ill, I was more terrified than anything of how ill you could feel and not be dying. I think I have always dealt with my illness with dignity, but there may well be some rage at the fucking circus of psychiatrists who have made life so hard for us by denying our illness is physical. The PACE trial is crumbling though. And we have Americans - journalist and academic David Tuller and professor of psychology James Coyne - to thank for that.
(And I had to look up ammonite. )