In an extraordinary memoir that skillfully negotiates between the fierce candor of a war veteran and the quiet sensibility of an artist, Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe columnist Donald Murray dives head first into aging, a subject that is often only whispered about, stereotyped or, even worse, ignored. Turning his penetrating journalist’s eye for observance and revelation onto his own life, Murray ventures back through his seventy-plus years with an unsparing honesty and clarity that age has afforded him.
Born to God-fearing Scottish parents, Murray grew up with little more than a handshake from his mother and a solidly constructed lack of confidence in his abilities and intellect. A sickly child with no siblings, he had only solitude to grow on–a lonely meal, but one that fed his imagination and his talent for sketching out the subtleties of life that have made his columns so beloved.
From his struggles to put himself through college and his vivid experiences as a paratrooper in World War II, to his shaky acceptance of himself as a writer and his survival of immense personal tragedy, Murray addresses issues and emotions that society has long deemed taboo for men of his era: feelings of inadequacy, grief, family dysfunction, and most importantly, the indignities of age. But as he courageously sheds light on the difficult aspects of growing old, he discovers that there is more joy abundant in it than he ever imagined.
Whether he is relaying a war story or his poignant ritual of listening for his wife’s breath each morning, Murray never shies away from a truth–no matter how uncomfortable it may be. Propelled forward by the love of his work, a quiet devotion to his family, and an unceasing commitment to understanding his place in the world, he is an elegant reminder that the drive to live fully does not end at retirement. In his hands, aging is adventurous terrain, full of possibilities and unprecedented insight–a time that we spend much of our life fearing but, when reached, bestows upon us unexpected gifts.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Edition description:||1 ED|
|Product dimensions:||5.27(w) x 7.57(h) x 0.83(d)|
About the Author
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Donald Murray writes the weekly “Over 60” column for the Boston Globe. Boston Magazine and The Improper Bostonian magazine selected him best columnist in Boston in 1991 and 1996, respectively. He is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of New Hampshire, which opened the Donald M. Murray Journalism Laboratory in 1997. His books on writing include Write to Learn, The Craft of Revision, Writer in the Newsroom, and Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, Poem.
Visit the author at www.previewport.com/Home/murray.html.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1 MY Unexpected Life
I was in Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, far from my New Hampshire home, less than three months after my early retirement at sixty-two, when the nurses—male and female—had given me their cheery bread-and-breakfast welcome to cardiac intensive care and hooked me up to tubes and wires. I experienced an unexpected comfort from the machines and felt my feet and hands, then legs and arms, then body and head relax. I was not anxious as I had been in the restaurant. I no longer felt foolish at asking my friend Chip Scanlan to take me on a careening drive across town to emergency. The nurses had called a doctor, someone from the business office had personally checked my insurance card even if it was Sunday night, and they had taken me seriously enough to admit me to cardiac intensive care. I knew I was where I belonged.
Soon the monitors beeped insistent messages only the nurses could understand, and I was touched by their sudden concern as they circled me, anxiously looking down, each busy with a different task. Then I realized it wasn’t caring that motivated them as much as challenge. The smiles became game faces, grim with football- field excitement. They shared an adrenaline high. This would be a “good” heart attack—and as a former police reporter I knew what a “good” fire, accident, shooting meant: one that would test their craft. I imagined I could feel my father’s ironic smile on my face and hoped he had known I had made it down to Boston from New Hampshire and was waiting outside emergency while he had had his last heart attack.
Moments later the elephant stepped on my chest—the cliché is accurate—and I knew why the nurses were excited. I was having a heart attack and it must have been a beaut. My first reaction, I confess, was satisfaction. I had been telling my primary-care doctor at home that something was wrong. He assured me he saw no signs of heart trouble.
I was given a stress test by this doctor who called himself a heart specialist but, I later learned, had failed board certification many times, and he told me I didn’t need a cardiologist and not to worry. I tried. My father had been a hypochondriac, and I had feared all my life that it was an inherited disease. Fear of his hypochondria was a main reason I played football, boxed, and volunteered for the paratroops. Now the machines proved I was not imagining my failing heart. I gloated. I could hardly wait to tell those doctors when I got home. Then the editor took over: if I got home.
I turned my mind from the satisfaction that this was indeed a genuine, 100 percent heart attack to observe just what was going on. I was not surprised at my reporter’s detachment. I had a lifetime of training in objective observation. It had served me well when I had to witness the suffering of others and to write their stories on deadline. Now I would see if that coldness of which I was both proud and ashamed could be turned on myself.
A loudspeaker rasped out orders from a cardiologist who had seen me earlier and gone home. The nurses relayed numbers to him and followed orders, inserting needles in me, attaching more wires, feeding medication into tubes, and carrying on a terse dialogue that was similar to the radio messages that went from platoon to company or company to battalion when I was in combat. I appreciated the flat, unemotional manner in which they reported and the equally objective manner of his response. They were businesslike and that was what I wanted at the moment: professional care—very professional care. I focused on their application of technology and listened intently trying to read their medical jargon and find out how I was doing.
My detachment from my own dying did not surprise me. It came from my nature, from experience, from professional training, and from age. We old-timers have been this route before. We know how to behave or, at least, how we behave in moments of crisis. We have been tested and have usually found ourselves stronger than we expected. One doctor—young, of course—told me that the elderly feel less pain than the young. That may be true, but I like to believe it is more that we are experienced with pain. We know how to confront pain; we know that—so far—the worst waves of pain have passed and life has gone on.
In times of stress, most members of my generation reach back to the myths of our ethnicity. I am a Scot. I am tough; we confront terror with a joke. We’d better have a sense of humor if our men wear skirts to war. While feeling the tremendous pain of a major heart attack, I tried to joke it away—“Haven’t you got a smaller elephant?” My audience was too busy to laugh—or perhaps I just wasn’t funny.
I could, however, feel myself detaching from myself, an ability I became aware of in the flat we left when I was only four years old. We lived with my mother’s mother, a truly tough, commanding, and demanding widow with a great bun of auburn hair and a direct line to our Baptist God. When she called Him the line was never busy. I was aware, even then, that when she made it clear to Mother that she hadn’t measured up—letting the tea steep too long, spending too much time shopping with her friends—Mother would meet Father at the door and I would get a beating. Sometimes I hid before he came home, but I never felt it was a personal act; I could detach myself from the whiplash pain of the leather shaving strap. I knew all about cause and effect.
My childhood ability to detach myself from my family and develop an only child loneliness I came to enjoy, served me well in the loneliness of infantry warfare. During the war, I remember realizing one day that I felt happy. I was back from the front, a few hundred yards back, the sun was bright, and I was enjoying lunch, even the dreaded turdlike fruit bar. I was relaxed sitting in a field of corpses, ignoring the dead and even the not-yet dead. All of us who survived infantry combat in the war of our generation would always feel guilty at our ability to detach ourselves from our emotions—fear, terror, panic—and do what had to be done. And beside our guilt stood pride. As the nurses fought to save my life, I felt confident I could take whatever discomfort was necessary to survive.
I wanted to live, but I was wise enough, experienced enough, to know that at this stage the fight would be a passive one. I would give myself over to the nurses and not make their task difficult by flailing away at what I couldn’t control. I kept concentrating on my unexpected calm, remembering when I first got over my fear of water and learned to float. I imagined I was again lying just under the surface of Lake Millen at Camp Morgan, my face above water. I saw again the bowl of sky, the pines that ran down to the lake’s edge, felt the easy rise and fall of lake water.
As the nurses worked harder and the foot of the elephant did not rise from my chest, a long, brightly lit tube rose up from intensive care and at the other end stood Lee, the daughter who had died ten years before, standing in the favorite blue jumper she had made herself, smiling, her hand raised in a hesitant wave.
As I was starting toward her, a male nurse slapped my shoulder as if I had just scored a touchdown. “It’s over. You’re going to make it.”
“Thanks,” I said as Lee, still smiling, waved and disappeared—for now.
In January 1946 I was in the front rows of the 82nd Airborne marching down Fifth Avenue in New York City in the World War II Victory Parade. Then, in 1987, forty-two years after that parade, I could not march the nine-tenths of a mile from home to my office at the University of New Hampshire without resting. My legs felt heavy. I had unexpected moments of apprehension. I put myself in a cardiac exercise program and had trouble circling the gym.
Why didn’t I go to a doctor? I did. I kept asking about my symptoms. The doctor didn’t worry: I had low cholesterol. I knew that. I was approaching the anniversary of my father’s first heart attack—and he had low cholesterol. The doctor smiled and nodded but made no notes. Only now, in allowing myself to tell this story, can I admit the frustration, the anger, and the uncomfortable, even stupid, fatalism that I let guide my life.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Donald Murray's searingly honest evaluation of the joys and the griefs of aging are poignantly told in this memoir. With a delightful writing style he shares with the reader his personal journey.