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Don’t be deceived by the teeth

26 June 2015

Ann Morisy looks at two books about the onset of old age

The Courage to Grow Old
Barbara Cawthorne Crafton
Morehouse Publishing £9
Church Times Bookshop £8.10


Mortal Blessings
Angela Alaimo O'Donnell
Ave Maria Press £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90


EACH generation ages in its own distinctive way. Both these books are written by authors shaped by the "permissive" decades of the last century, and this makes for frank introspection, presumed financial security, and uninhibited expressions of intimacy, as well as a full embrace of the exceptional longevity with which baby-boomers are becoming familiar. We also know that men and women experience old age quite differently; so these books are women's books - for women, and written by liberated women.

Mortal Blessings is an impressive, hauntingly beautiful reflection. Angela Alaimo O'Donnell offers a prose meditation on the sacramental practice of accompanying her mother in her final illness. She describes the events that follow from her mother's falling and breaking her hip, and the ensuing surgery. This is not, however, a story of happy families, but of a difficult mother-daughter relationship, making this a narrative of failure and forgiveness. It is this that spares this reflection sentimentality, and confirms the extraordinary way in which grace and sacrament have their roots in our inadequacies and botched efforts. In this context, and in caring for her mother's failing body, O'Donnell discovers significant, holy rituals.

This book is practical as well as inspiring, and would be a helpful offering to those, and there are many, who reluctantly or willingly are enrolled on the long watch beside a dying parent. This author names for the reader, and for the watcher through the days and nights, the ups and downs, the poignancy and the frustrations that come with conflicting prognoses, the likely disarming disinhibition of the dying, communicating with the friends and relatives of the dying person, enabling these things to be enfolded with meaning and be a source of grace-filled sacredness.

The Courage to Grow Old is quite different. This is a perky, accessible reflection on a little-acknowledged period in our lives - when the third age of competence and potential fulfilment drifts into the fourth age of relinquishing and fragility. This is when courage is tested, and the challenge is a serious one, because the generation that is now approaching later life has been well fed and well provided for, and unlike previous generations has mostly been spared testing times. "The end of life is hard. All we can do is the best we can," comments Cawthorne Crafton, and she risks going further, offering simple but sustaining thoughts about "what happens when this life is over".

Both these books are from the United States, and this may be a downer, but Mortal Blessings deserves to become a classic on both sides of the Pond. The Courage to Grow Old presents a tougher challenge to the British reader, perhaps not helped by the almost life-size smiling face of the author on the front cover. A smile with perfect teeth . . . reminding us that, for the first time in human history, aged teeth can be made pristine. Inside the cover, liberated baby-boomers will be reminded, however, that old-fashioned infirmity awaits, and, if anything is to be made new, it will be through the grace of God.


Ann Morisy is a freelance community theologian and lecturer.

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