Friday 23 February 2018

Deirdre Purcell on the upside of ageing

I know what I will look like in my coffin.

Deirdre Purcell
Photo Tom Conachy
Deirdre Purcell Photo Tom Conachy
Deirdre Purcell Photo Tom Conachy

Deirdre Purcell

I was taking part in a recent television documentary project, 'Play Next Door', that, at one stage, involved a plaster cast being made of my face and I was given the resultant mask to keep. For me, the process, although tolerable, was less than comfortable.

So what now to do with this silent, jolting intimation of mortality? I am too superstitious to throw it out since, after all it is not simply a photograph but a record of my living flesh.

Should I hang it on my wall? If so, does it deserve a frame or would that be hubris? Even more pridefully, should I have it enclosed in Lucite as a work of art? Have a stand made for it as a sculpture?

Give it to one of my sons as a sort of memorial of his mother?

However, because I am very much alive, this is not a death mask – although if I were being fanciful I could actually line myself up alongside Cromwell, Dean Swift, Frederick the Great and various luminaries down the centuries whose likenesses were thus perpetuated – but, of course, after their deaths.

I was very much alive when, having point blank refused the offer of a black rubber swimmers' cap to cover my hair (a Black Cap? Symbol of forthcoming execution?) the rest of me was caped in a white sheet.

I was then asked to close my eyes and mouth so my face could be slathered with a preparatory gel made of seaweed ("it'll do your skin good" promised the mask-maker) then literally plastered with the same stuff the medics use on shattered limbs in Emergency Rooms all over the country.

With tiny holes left at my nostrils so I could breathe, there was to be no talking, no twitching of nose, eyebrows or eyelids while the plaster hardened.

There followed a quarter hour during which my main worry was not just the severe claustrophobia, but what would happen if I sneezed?

On both counts, the relief when the thing was removed with just a quick jerk of the plasterer's hands, was enormous.

What's it like?

In most ways, the finished product is an accurate physical depiction. The nose is peaky – yeah, that's right. And the expression is serene, just like the face of a corpse when it has been through the expert hands of the undertaker.

But the plaster is very, very white, smooth and unblemished, while my living skin is blotchy and variegated. And it is very clear that I am not just asleep. The personality has moved out – or on – and that's the scary bit.

To be positive, at least now I have a three-dimensional record of my personal time on the planet and it has certainly forced me to contemplate the rest of me.

That's your face, Deirdre, captured in one afternoon? How's the body doing? How's the living?

If all the world's a stage and if we, the players, go through our seven ages as in the monologue given to Jacques in Shakespeare's 'As You Like It', on which stage do I face my audience these days?

We can discount the obvious: infant, schoolgirl, soldier – that's three off the ticket.

I'll never now be a judge, I guess – that's four – I leave wise saws and modern instances to others, although the fair round belly with good capon lined could fairly be cited by the judgmental among us.

I also discount the seventh age where I will be in second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste sans everything – although yes, I do wear specs.

But I have enough marbles left to complete, unaided, a few crosswords. I can still taste my morning cornflakes and I still have my own teeth – a few of them anyway!

So that leaves Sixth age – slippered pantaloons with spectacles on nose and pouch on side . . . youthful hose well saved. . . voice turning again toward childish treble, pipes and whistles in his (her) sound . . .

Hmm . . .

Slippers? Check!

Spectacles on nose? As above – check!

Youthful hose well saved? Ask those who have anything to do with my domestic sphere. Parting me from anything not actually covered in mould requires radical surgery – but by others – following mountains of family complaints about clutter, the mantra learned at my mother's knee being: "that could come in handy".

I still own, even sometimes wear, items of clothing from the Sixties. They do cycle back, you know! And do stretchy jeans count as pantaloons?

However, I don't think that, as yet, I'm shifting vocally into childish treble? Nor do I whistle as I speak?

Thank the Lord for small mercies there so it's a mere toe into that Sixth Age.

So what we're left with now is the Lover: Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad made to his mistress' (fella's) eyebrow.

Erm – not quite.

But I am a lover – of my husband, sons and wider family, of friends, of (most) people; of wildlife, dogs, cats, horses, hares, deer, foxes, trees, dairy cows, all of nature's kingdom.

I love potato crisps. I love Hendricks gin with tonic and a shaving of cucumber. I love my neighbours. I love quite a lot of theatre, movies, classical music, art, TV and books. I love TK Maxx, I love my new iPhone.

I love people who ring me up out of the blue and offer me a fresh challenge. I love much of my past, including my secondary school in Gortnor Abbey with its fabulous nuns.

I love the unknown aspect of the future and the biggest regret of my life is that I won't live long enough to see what magnificent developments, already in prospect, will come to pass under the headings of technology, science and the cosmos.

I love Colonel Hadfield who gave us such a holistic view of the planet from his little window on the space station.

So, as you can see, I love a lot, far, far more than I dislike or hate.

Do I hate getting older? I have sympathy for those who resist it with every artifice going. But to me that is futile. Time will not be denied and in any case, attempting to frustrate it is so expensive, I'd rather save for a nice holiday.

Take hair for one thing: to dispense with the palaver of keeping it coloured, I want to go grey now, but hairdressers tell me I can't yet because I'm grey only on the front of my head, like those monkeys with round white patches on their noggins. A Cotton Top Tamarin, that's me.

Like everyone else, I do marvel at the screen stars who, in their 60s, look younger than they did in their 40s. But that's their job. They are judged on it far more, unfairly, than their male colleagues. I certainly have enormous sympathy for women confronted with that conundrum.

But I don't trust those who croon: 'Doesn't she look great for her age?' while furtively searching for the tell-tale scars behind the ears. For me, you look as good as your mother and grandmother did at the appropriate age.

I admit it would be nice again occasionally to be young, to have – once or twice – intense and fundamentally silly, posturing conversations with boys who could be candidates for The One.

Or to stay up all night coming down with Leonard Cohen and a group of friends dressed in flared jeans and psychedelic t-shirts emblazoned with peace signs; to have long shiny hair and plenty of eyelashes, to wriggle around a dance floor in the knowledge you're not making a laughing stock of yourself – because your ponytail is flying, your skin is fresh and fair, your jeans are attractively tight and your stomach naturally flat.

On the other hand, there are advantages to being in the REAL Sixties: not giving a damn about who sees you browsing through the larger sizes in Dunnes or Penneys; not feeling silly when discovered shouting at the telly. Enjoying the lack of pressure to wear stiletto heels because comfortable shoes are now your right.

Muttering 'to hell with salads' while openly having Bovril sandwiches for lunch. Having conversations with friends where you don't have to struggle to convey what you mean: 'Howya! God it's awful isn't it?' with the other party instinctively knowing what we're talking about here.

Not having to explain even during comfortable phone chats. These, formerly about boyfriends – and later husbands – have now morphed into "organ recitals" pharmacological discussions, and debates whether BB creams from Aldi are just as good as those that cost as much as a night out. Sending funny birthday cards showing large-bottomed women having a great time, secure in the knowledge that the addressee will take no offence.

All of this may sound desperately boring to those who are consumed with new love or the freshness of a high-flying job, addicted to excitement, bent above all else on rising to the top of a tree.

For me, the most profound change within the ageing spirit is in attitude. As a journalist, for my newspaper I interviewed the justly esteemed playwright Tom Murphy on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday. I asked him what he saw as being significant on reaching that milestone. He took the question seriously, as Tom always does, ruminated a little, and then said:

"You have to have your own ideas now."

Up to that moment, he explained, you are entitled to argue and expound on the ideas, opinions and convictions absorbed from others, parents, teachers, pundits, influencers of all types. You are on your own now, however, and are required to decide for yourself what's important to you personally, what you stand for and even more significantly, what you don't.

That principle is profound, somewhat exciting but also frightening as you step into a bigger, lonelier arena. It makes for different, sometimes edgy dialogue with those you have respected up to then. I have tried my best to live up to it.

On a serious note, getting older can be heartbreaking too. Many of my friends and acquaintances struggle with illness, some life-threatening. A few of my best friends have already died and I miss them terribly, hoarding their last messages on my mobile phone, their last Christmas cards, their photos showing no evidence of what was to come.

As for my own health, although I don't suffer from osteoporosis, thank goodness, in the past couple of years I have sustained fractures as a result of serious falls, all of them involving a misjudgment of the height or positioning of steps. I've been told by my detractors (that was a very amusing "funny walk" you caricatured that night, Brother Declan, dear!) that I tend to walk with my head in the air. They're right. I do, because the sky, the birds, the trees, the clouds, the changing light, are so fascinating. And upper shelves house the most interesting goods.

But my glasses are varifocals and I've been told I should change to a single vision pair when I'm out and about. 'They' are probably right about that too. And I will obey. Soon.

So. Back to my death mask and what to do with it? Still don't know, but keeping it around in full view might prompt an overdue visit to my GP . . .

Irish Independent

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