Memento Mori, Thoughts on Growing Old

growing old, dog

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Old age should burn and rave at close of day; 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 
—Dylan Thomas

Growing Old with Our Shih-Tzu

Old people love to talk about their aches and pains.  I’ve forborne doing that, but as I look back on my recent birthday (In a few years I’ll be in my tenth decade), it struck me that if I did so, I might find a therapeutic context for my own signs of senility.

And there is a case history in our house that will help in this.  A few years ago, we had a Shih-Tzu, Toby,  who at 14 suddenly began showing signs of growing old.  His tail, instead of arching over his back, drooped more and more.  He limped, favoring the two legs that were probably arthritic.    Even though blind, he had navigated well over a large yard and cluttered rooms during the preceding four years.  But he began to bump into objects more and more, and without the sound of our voices to guide, would hesitate—as if to ponder “where am I and what am I doing here?”.

Toby’s bark was still imperious as he asked to be let out or in;  despite the drooping tail, his spirit seemed to be good until the last few months.   (My wife contends that he had racial memories of being a pampered pet in the household of the Chinese Empress and condescended to stay with us round-eyed peasants.) He grew quite scrawny in his old age—ribs and backbone were conspicuous.  (That’s one attribute of old age I wish I would emulate.)

At the end he had trouble standing and had been incontinent for about six weeks—we had used baby diapers (#1) and a wrap to minimize cleaning up.    One of our other dogs, a very sensitive and intelligent terrier mix, was very upset by all this.   He would avoid going into the room where Toby slept, and when in the room would smell and nuzzle him. Toby’s last days were particularly bad;  there were periods when he would continually utter a high, piercing cry, unlike any bark or whimper he had voiced before.    We would rearrange him on his bed, help him to stand, offer him water or food, which would seem to give him a little peace.   Finally, when he refused food or drink and was not able to stand or walk at all, we decided it was time to put him to sleep at the age of 17 (119 human years?).  It was very hard.

And should I be put down when I become infirm?

And here comes the point of comparison.  I myself am noticing a slow-down.  I now find it hard to do yard work that was easy a few years ago. As a point of pride and for cardio-vascular workouts, I used to avoid elevators.   Now it’s seldom that I go up or down stairs except in our home, and then I plan errands to minimize trips between floors.

And when I get to Toby’s state should I be put down, euthanized?  Here’s a question: why is it permissible to euthanize a pet, but not a human being?  And here’s the answer:  humans have a special soul, an intellective soul, to use a scholastic term.   We can know of our own death; we can know of a God; we are created special.   C.S. Lewis has written a last chapter in his book “On the Problem of Pain” that deals with this question.   His answer, which I like very much, is that man is meant to be head of the kingdom (as in Eden) and will be in heaven with the animals who have been his companions in life.

Watching the Old People at the Nursing Home

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,“And your hair has become very white;And yet you incessantly stand on your head –Do you think, at your age, it is right?”“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son “I feared it might injure the brain; But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none, Why, I do it again and again.”  
—Lewis Carroll

This is the big question: what should be done when or if my  mind becomes as decrepit as my body?  I see signs of what could happen  when I attend  Masses held in the chapel of a local nursing home, managed by an order of Catholic Nuns.  The Nursing Home is also a rehab center for patients with Alzheimer’s and other senile mental disorders.   Many of the elderly nuns are there for either physical rehab, nursing care, or Alzheimer’s.

About 10 to 15 of us non-patients (including some still active nuns) attend Mass there on a semi-regular, twice-a-week basis.  We sit in chairs along the back and one of the side walls. The main part of the room is empty in order to hold the 10 to 15 wheel-chairs in phalanx rows; there are four or five patients in wheel chairs against the other side wall.   A few rows of chairs are placed in the room for friends and relatives of the patients so that they can sit alongside the wheel chairs of their loved ones.   Two or three attendants and nuns sit along the back wall.   No one rises or kneels during the Mass—it would be a hurtful reminder to those in the wheel chairs who cannot do so.  As is usual in Catholic Churches, one sits in a customary place.

During Mass I occasionally hear one of the patients (not one of the nuns) making a comment—”that’s beautiful”, “praise God”, “where’s my watch”, “thank you Father”.  As the priest makes his rounds handing out Holy Communion to each of us, visitors and patients, I look up and see one of the patients sleeping; the priest or EMOHC (a nun) will gently nudge the patient and slip a small portion of the Host into her mouth.

One of the nuns celebrated her 82nd anniversary in the Order a few weeks ago and her 100th birthday a week later.  She is alert and usually not one of those sleeping as Holy Communion is given out.   I see another nun, sleeping during the Mass; her hands are folded in prayer, but she seems oblivious to all that goes on around her, even when asked to receive the Host.   I recall some five or six years ago–she was sharp, witty, alert, managing a large enterprise for the order.   What are her interior thoughts now, I wonder?  Her hands are folded in prayer–does that posture mirror an interior devotion?

Which direction will I take–will the exterior display of the mind go?  Will there still be an interior self to contemplate and pray?


“If I had my life to live over again, I would form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is not another practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life.”
Muriel Spark, Memento Mori

And as I think of growing old and last days, I recall the Ash Wednesday injunction: “Remember man, thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return“.    The Latin motto, “Memento Mori” (remember that you have to die) was important in Medieval times for those pursuing an ascetic discipline, to hone their thoughts to the hereafter.

“Memento Mori” is the title of a wonderful novel by Muriel Spark about forethoughts of death and how they enhance life.   In the novel a group of elderly people—arty and social types—receive occasional phone calls (before the days of cell phones) “remember you must die”.    Their lives go on, perturbed somewhat by the calls, but not exceedingly so.    As some confront death, they compose themselves for an end to life, as the quote above suggests.   At the end of the novel it is not clear who has been sending the phone messages—perhaps God?

So, as we grow old we contemplate that “undiscovered country”.   We hope we are made strong by faith; that by faith even though it be imperfect, we will find that our Lord, in His infinite capacity for forgiveness, will not look too harshly on our sins.

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