What would you wish for in old age?

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BY TOM ODHIAMBO

Every now and then I meet someone trying to sell me retirement insurance. I often feign ignorance about the supposed need to ‘secure’ my future. The young man or woman – the salesmen are generally young – would advise me about the vagaries of life, warning me, “You don’t know what could happen to you when you retire; you may fall sick; you may have no one to rely on for upkeep; you may end up poor, etc.”
Of course I know something about saving today for tomorrow. I studied economics at high school and university. And I am as afraid of an uncertain future as any working person today who has become used to creature comforts.

But I also know that saving today for the future or putting aside some money today for when I am retired doesn’t necessarily guarantee that I will live a better life when I can no longer work. My hedonist friend claims that he doesn’t know when tomorrow will come. When tipsy he argues that tomorrow is fiction. And since I teach literature, I generally stop the debate with my friend at that point because I am afraid that indeed ‘tomorrow’ he would tell me that it is just another ‘today.’

Yet my friend acknowledges that people grow old and so, in some sense, there is a tomorrow. It is this growing old that we don’t discuss much when we aren’t old. Young people are generally unbothered about growing old and what it means to be old. In fact, old age creeps upon them. Age catches up with every living human being eventually. It doesn’t matter how much money one spends dyeing their hair, the hair will always seek its greyness. Plastic surgery works for some time then it becomes a bother. We can eat well, exercise, moderate our indulgences but old age will always invade our joints, eyes, ears, sense of smell, memory; our bodies eventually just give up.

So, what would a normal woman or man, wish for in old age? What would one want to become after toiling for all those years at the office, saving for old age and retiring? A traveler to see the world? A grandparent? A volunteer for some community work or other? Or just sit back, enjoy the benefits of one’s sweat through the years? Well, in many cases, in a country such as Kenya, not many retirees realize their dreams. Indeed many dreams come unstuck. The pension may be too little to keep pace with inflation. There may be too many dependents to take care of even after retirement. Or illness – which naturally shadows old age – may strike and undo all the nice retirement plans.

Illness is the subject of my review today. The kind of illness that often comes unannounced. Dementia isn’t a topic many Kenyans will speak about freely. It comes with fear, anger or even shame. This is why Arno Geiger’s book The Old King in His Exile (2013/2017; And Other Stories) is a book I would recommend to Kenyans, old and young. This book tells a most absorbing story of how the narrator’s father loses his memory and sense of control over the things humans do every day; the things that make people who they are – sharing stories, bathing, eating, reading, walking, sleeping etc.

The narrator forewarns the reader when he says, “When I was six, my grandfather stopped recognizing me. He lived in the house down the hill from ours, and because I cut through his orchard on the way to school, occasionally he threw a piece of wood at me, saying I had no business on his land. Sometimes, though, he liked to see me and would come over, calling me Helmut. That didn’t mean anything to me either. My grandfather dies. I forgot what happened – until the illness started in my father.” This is a chilling introduction. But it is also a very calm way of speaking about how we relate to others and how time, in its limitlessness, carries away things we should remember until it returns them to us.

The next paragraph of The Old King in His Exile then lays bare the tragedy of life as memory recedes for someone, as those around him are left confused or even angry. The narrator says, “In Russia there’s a saying that nothing in life returns except our mistakes.

And that they become worse in our old age. As my father had always been somewhat eccentric, we told ourselves that the slip-ups he started to make after his retirement were because he allowed himself to lose interest in his surroundings. It seemed typical of him.

So, for years we nagged, urging him to pull himself together.” The old man doesn’t change, in the manner his relatives expect him to improve. Instead, his condition worsens. He can’t remember the location of his house. He can’t recall his own daily routine. He is sleepless at times. He often gets angry with his carers. It is all downhill for this previously hardworking father, husband, brother and citizen.

In many ways The Old King in His Exile reminds us of our immortality. It raises important questions about what to do when ‘things fall apart’ for us, our relatives, friends, colleagues and members of the community. What should we do when a parent, a brother or a child we have lived with, loved, and shared dreams with suddenly suffers dementia (or any other debilitating illness)? How do we reinvent the way we treat or speak or relate to the person who is no longer the one we knew some time back? What do we do about the tragedy of such a disease, considering that we hardly plan in advance of any illness; even though we may have planned for such an eventuality?

What surprises in this story is the way the narrator learns to appreciate the moments he is together with the father. He discovers ways to manage his frustration and fear. In his own words, he is, “Ready for whatever comes.” Isn’t that probably one of life’s biggest lessons: to be somehow prepared for whatever tragedy comes your way? Is this the basis of saving material wealth for the future? I doubt, because if one can lose their memory and control over everyday social functions, then what’s the point of the pension? Could this the point of the title?

The Old King in His Exile is available on Amazon or at the Goethe-Institut, Nairobi.

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi.