“Whatever the satisfying and as yet culturally endorsed adventure after sixty may be, its necessary element is the sense of something essential and vital having been achieved or discovered or learned” (113). In this passage, Carolyn G. Heilbrun is actually discussing sex. However, I could not help thinking that discovering something “essential and vital” is a necessity for all aspects of life after sixty. The passage comes from Heilbrun’s 1997 book The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty, which I was given as a birthday present by a dear friend. I enjoyed it so much I started rationing my reading because I did not want to bid Heilbrun farewell.
How to summarize Carolyn G. Heilbrun? At times, I’m a little exhausted simply considering her achievements. An academic, the first woman to be tenured in the English Department of her own alma mater Columbia, she entered academic life in the fifties, a time, perhaps especially in the US, when the expectations of women were domestic and secondary. She married at nineteen; she had children and then grand-children. She and her husband never divorced. Under her pseudonym Amanda Cross, she wrote detective fiction. She had strong, long-lasting friendships with men and women. At times, it seems she had it all. Having determined to exit this life on reaching the biblical three score years and ten, she instead discovered that in her “the tide had begun to rise” (10). One of the results of that rising tide is The Last Gift of Time in which Heilbrun celebrates particularly the joys she discovered in her sixties. She did, however, take her own life in 2003 aged seventy-seven.
My knowledge of Heilbrun’s suicide cast a very faint shadow over what was otherwise an intensely satisfying book. The work is in so many ways a celebration of life, of possibility, of autonomy. Heilbrun reveals herself as compassionate, articulate, and insightful, someone who enjoys life, so I was somewhat troubled by knowing she chose to leave it. However, I suspect this shadow over the reading was my own not hers. For her, I think, the choice was not a choice of when to die but more a choice of when to stop living. She says in her Preface to The Last Gift of Time, “I choose, each day, for now, [my emphasis] to live” (10).
The rest of the book is divided into chapters, each one a meditation on various aspects of Heilbrun’s life during her sixties. She discusses her need for a small house away from the city, a place where she can be alone; she explains her love of England and London, recalls “The Dog Who Came to Stay,” and extolls the possibilities inherent in email. While specific memories are her own, her insights and observations strike a strong chord of recognition, and in reading Heilbrun you feel as though you are in conversation with an old friend, the sort of friend who sees things just as you see them, someone who has shared your experiences and understands them. Her chapters “On Not Wearing Dresses” and “Living With Men” ought surely to be required reading for all, both men and women.
One of the many experiences I share with Heilbrun is the fact of being an only child and therefore the focus of all one’s parents’ ambitions. Through much of the book, she talks of how supportive of her aspirations her father had been. Then she faces what she calls a “profound shock” (201). She tells us that the question of whether her father would have “been so supportive” had she had a brother made her realise that had she indeed had a brother she would not have been “expected to insist upon a professional career or revolutionary opinions” (202). She comments that “reconsider[ing] one’s life, seeing it suddenly in a new formulation, may be a tremor worth undergoing in one’s later years” (202). For me, Heilbrun’s experience in this particular instance reinforced my own sense that no matter how focussed we are on self-determination, so many of the choices we feel ourselves able to make are actually dictated by chance situations and events beyond our control. What would have happened to Heilbrun had she indeed had a brother? Or to me?
Those “what if . . .” questions are those we can never answer. Heilbrun seems to have learnt much better than I how to live in the present. Talking of the success of long marriages, she says her “guess is that the value of the moment has at last overshadowed the long history of resentments, betrayals, and boredom” (213). This too is a sentiment that can surely be extended to include a wider range of experience than marriage.
Heilbrun ends the book with the chapter on marriage and with a poem by Jane Kenyon “Otherwise” that she quotes in full. The last lines are “But one day, I know,/it will be otherwise”(215). We all know that one day, “it will be otherwise.” How we deal with that knowledge, especially as we move further into old age, is the challenge: the challenge that Heilbrun met with verve and the conviction that the “supposition” that one may be doing something for the “last time” actually “provides the rarest and most exquisite flavor to one’s later years” (55).
This is a book to keep to hand to be delved into again from time to time.