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What Do the Dying Know?

To be young and whole is to own the earth, to own the story. But the story doesn’t end when we pass peak performance. Where are the tales about what happens then?

Because the body does, indeed break down. I think of the original Star Trek episode, “The Menagerie.” Captain Christopher Pike’s body is so damaged that he can’t move or speak, and he’s in a strange box-like contraption. He’s given the opportunity to live on the planet Talos IV, in a world that allows him the illusion of himself as young and healthy. I have no quarrel with being able to project himself in a better life, but the body in a box always seemed to me to be a metaphor for old age. Old bodies are traps.

Cronenberg has said about his 1986 film The Fly that it is a story of aging, and it gives this to us by the device of an unwelcome intrusion of a foreign body into his own. It overtakes him.

Our fundamental desire, our belief, is that our body won’t betray us, and of course there are many people who maintain a good physical existence to the end. But the rest of us don’t.

I was 19 when I suddenly became partially paralyzed, due to an undiscovered congenital spine defect. It was my first body betrayal, and very far from the last. Over the years, more spinal issues arose, and the memory of moving easily was just that, a memory. It has influenced a lot of my stories indirectly. We love the idea of, say, replacing the parts that stop working—androids, for instance—or moving our aging brains into new bodies. We hope there are cures every step of the way as hearts murmur, and joints lock, as vision and hearing and balance fail. We are fascinated by the idea of growing new ears and organs on pigs, and I’ve used that in a story. Or we twist the concept of body failure by turning bodies into alien beings, as in The Fly.

Because of the numerous replacements and surgeries, people laughingly say, “Oh, you’re bionic.” I actually prefer “rebuilt classic.” Because the mix of old and new suggests restoration. I have willingly incorporated new parts as I go (new knees, new hips), as long as I can continue to move (again, that Star Trek episode haunts me). The mix of parts suggests a scientific solution to aging, as if I could someday acknowledge that I am Borg: a basic human plan with added technology.

As I age, the metaphors for it in my stories lead themselves to contained, distinct alienation of the body. I’ve written about fingers betraying a woman’s hands, perhaps in response to what arthritis is doing to my hands. I wrote a story where a woman’s hair was stolen by a coworker. While the story never suggests it, it referred to how I viewed the hair loss associated with chemo. Stolen. But my body is the true metaphor.

And the body, with all its aberrations, still goes on.

There’s a dearth of great stories about aging, especially about women aging, and aging women, about being left out of most discussions, about accepting and continuing.

I try to include aging and disabled (the two don’t always go together, but sometimes they do) in my stories. My latest novel, The Splendid City, has a senior witch who is increasingly disabled, and we see her go from a cane to a wheelchair. In fact, she flies in a lawn chair. Who can sit on a broom after 30 anyway? She still has power, and she has the added authority of experience and understanding.

By and large, old women don’t have much place in modern society. Aging, of course, is not restricted to women, but women become increasingly invisible.

In “The Space Crone,” Ursula K. Le Guin suggested that if aliens were to ask for a representative individual from our earth, we should consider the ordinary old woman who has worked for her family and who has gone through enormous changes such as childbirth and menopause, things most men don’t do and therefore can’t experience as life changes. These women have seen and done more than men do, and have never been considered important, despite their rather pivotal roles in society. But they have a fuller life than men. This reminds me of Miss Marple, who was acute at divining the criminal because they reminded her of the past criminals she had encountered. She perceived patterns.

One scene that stands out for me is Jet in Alice Hoffman’s The Book of Magic, involving the aging witch Jet, who has just found out that she has only a week before her death. It’s particularly striking that she is a strong woman, in control of her life, though not always effective in the lives of those she loves. Her last days are powerful, not because she wins a ring or a stone or a battle, but because she sees with remarkable sight what the world is, and what she is. Perhaps what bothers me so much about how aging and death are portrayed is that we want a bigger boom than insight and acceptance, and love. But Jet’s death is a powerful chapter, the letting go with love, and the reconciliation with love when her family line has always been cursed to lose what they love. Nothing diminishes her. What she has is the wholeness of life behind her.

It’s this wholeness of life that Miss Marple, Jet, and a host of other detectives earn through aging. Life is both surprise and repetition. We learn from both.

I’m working on a story where the older women in an urban neighborhood have set up their own watch—in touch with each other from block to block, aiding in solving crimes. I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it, but it’s part of a collection I hope to have some day, called, “The League of Invisible Women.” They’re invisible because that’s what women after menopause are: invisible. But they have sharp eyes and enough of a network to function effectively. They are the senior eyes in the neighborhood; they may not have the action scenes but they have knowledge, and by working within the community, together, they pass that knowledge down.

If the end of life is finalizing, letting things go—what do we learn from that? What is the takeaway? We’ve heard so many times that the last regrets are not what we did, but what we didn’t do: where is the way to evaluate that? There are so many things we didn’t do; wouldn’t it be worthwhile to know how to judge them? Wouldn’t there be value in being told what did work in a long life, what they’ve seen fail not only with themselves but with the larger world? What broad wisdom are we letting slip away? What is the underlying pattern?

The questions to the dying of course should be, what have you learned about values? What in the world should be changed? What are the patterns and how do we see them and address them? How can we be better?

So, what do readers like me want to see? I want women of all kinds and ages to take their place in our stories, to face their aging with courage and deal with it. Because we do.

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Karen Heuler

Karen Heuler’s stories have appeared in over 100 literary and speculative magazines and anthologies, from Conjunctions to Fantasy & Science Fiction and an upcoming Asimov’s, as well as a number of Best Of anthologies. She has published six novels and six story collections. She has received an O. Henry award, been shortlisted for a Pushcart prize, for the Iowa short fiction award, the Bellwether award and the Shirley Jackson award for short fiction. Her stories and books often feature women facing strange circumstances on this world and others. Find her at karenheuler.com, befriend her at /karenheuler on FB, or follow her on Twitter (@karenheuler).

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