The Time of Our Lives
I’ve always loved Robert Dessaix’s ability to flip the script – and in The Time of Our Lives he doesn’t disappoint.
He rails, for example, at Dylan Thomas’s oft-quoted villanelle about death: “Do not go gently into that good night … rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Why not go gently? Dessaix asks defiantly, then adds: Why struggle when you can give life’s difficulties the flick gradually “hope by hope”.
What you’ll glean from this intro is that we’re on another rollicking ride with Robert: a welcome chance for one of our most cherished, erudite and flamboyant authors to let rip.
Ageing sucks, he acknowledges. (“It’s the names that go first, isn’t it? Nouns come next, apparently. Yes, her. You can try to die young as late as possible, in other words.”) But he also writes lyrically about its positives.
“One good reason I have for feeling happy towards the end of a long life is the vivid sense I have of flowering at last,” he says, “I’m aware of a burgeoning at work deep inside me, an opening up, a many-hued efflorescence.”
Travel, of course, is one bonus of being older if you’re in good health and cashed up. Java, Berlin and home in Hobart, form the backdrops for Dessaix’s philosophising – and as he sits poolside, or in open air restaurants, or in his blue room in Tasmania, he muses on the broader perspective Zen Asia offers on how to grow old well, and to suck every last sip of juice from the mango.
My potted and somewhat flippant take on how Dessaix has been spending his autumn years goes thus: Propriety out the window (obviously). Almost exclusively doing only what you want (sure). Dwelling on whatever keeps you most amused or energised (yes). Learning a language which you may never get to speak with those for whom it’s a native tongue (uh huh). Lingering over lunch, delighted by the twists and turns of your friend’s conversation, and letting yourself be tempted to eat a morsel of meat, even though you’re a card-carrying vegetarian (why the devil not).
Dessaix’s own description of how to make the most of growing older is more eloquent: “Once you get to the final act in the drama, all you need to keep constantly in mind is what makes you happy – makes you dance – put yourself in the way of it as often as you can.”
One of the many female friends Dessaix quotes in the book has this to say (and I confess I found her words comforting): “The thing is you don’t have to fix things any more, do you. Or at least I don’t. I used to, I remember. Capitalism, for instance, the scandal of church schools, overfishing. It’s such a relief not to feel I have to. The world was a circus when I came into it, it is still a circus and always will be.”
The Time of Our Lives is grounded by Dessaix’s visits to his partner’s mother’s bedside in a nursing home. Rita has lived a fairly circumscribed life and when we’re introduced to her she’s not faring very well at all. In fact, she often asks to go home – and isn’t that where most of us would rather be as we slip from this world?
Dessaix claims most people don’t fear death and its attendant nothingness so much as the pain and indignity that can lead up to it. Nappies? (No thank you.) Having someone shower you after you’ve had a toileting accident? (Awful.) But can we avoid them? (If elderly people bother to pray anymore, I’d hazard a guess it’s for a swift, peaceful and dignified end.)
It’s through Rita’s situation that we recognise how lucky we’d be to get to life’s last moments and still have some of the people we have loved or been loved by at our side. In fact, this could be all that matters at the end, given how one’s achievements, passions and cleverness recede in importance and can eventually turn to dust.
Euthanasia doesn’t feature in The Time of Our Lives nor does Australia’s Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety and its (blindingly obvious) revelations that the ‘care’ provided in our nation for ageing people is scattergun at best. In Covid times, of course, we’ve seen how the fissures in the system can end lives prematurely. We’ve also seen just how little has been done to stop the cracks getting worse.
I hope the mention of these omissions does not make it sound like I think Dessaix’s book is lightweight or lacking in some fundamental way – as I do not. It’s lovely – and chock full of wit and wonder as we’d expect.
My sincere hope is that in his dotage Dessaix will continue to find time for gay ballroom dancing (which he loves) and the space to pen another book or two. Now that he’s dealt with death and its preamble, I wonder what’s next?
The Time of Our Lives is also available as an audio book narrated by Paul English (Wavesound)