Do Not Go Idle into That Good Night

Dr. Brenda Milner, age 98, in her office at Montreal Neurological Institute (Aaron Vincent Elkaim photo for New York Times)

“How amazing it would be to live all the way to the end of the century” was a thought I often had as a boy born in 1950, at the century’s exact midpoint. Now, finding myself well beyond the magical threshold of 2000, death is never far from my thoughts. One benefit of being a writer is you have license to dwell on death without friends claiming you’re morbid or worrying you keep a noose hidden nearby.

Advancing years do nothing to dispel death’s presence. My 91-year-old friend Louis Enlow died three weeks ago, I recently had a prostate scare, and last night I learned that a cousin my age has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Nothing remarkable in these events, not really. We all experience them, moreso as we age. They are life’s ebbtides and someday they will also carry us out to sea.

Of course what conveys us toward death is time. By its every tick and every tock plus an insistence on going only one direction. I know how much of my treasure I have spent – 67 years and change. As for how much time I have left, your guess is as good as mine. In my case family history is no help. I come from a long line of alcoholics so, as my doctor points out, there’s scant precedent for males who keep fit and drink moderately. Most of my male forebears didn’t stick around long enough to be claimed by heart attack, cancer or dementia.

In recent weeks, as death has been busy around me, I have come across two countervailing accounts of people who most certainly have stuck around, and are doing impressive work in their nineties.

John Goodenough is a 94-year old engineering professor at the University of Texas in Austin. A team he leads has just filed a patent application for a new kind of battery that has caught the attention of tech engineers everywhere. If this invention works as promised, it would be so cheap, lightweight and safe that it would revolutionize electric cars and bury petroleum-fueled vehicles along with the lithium-ion battery. Dr. Goodenough knows something about that battery, which shrank power into a tiny package. In 1980, at age 57, he coinvented it.

Asked about his late-life success, Dr. Goodenough told the New York Times, “Some of us are turtles; we crawl and struggle along, and we haven’t maybe figured it out by the time we’re 30.” He says the turtle’s crawling pace can be an advantage, particularly if you meander through different fields, picking up clues as you go along. He started in physics, then hopped sideways into chemistry and materials science, while also paying attention to social and political trends that could drive a green economy. “You have to draw on a fair amount of experience in order to be able to put ideas together.” He also credits old age with bringing him intellectual freedom. At 94, he says, “You no longer worry about keeping your job.”

A few thousand miles north of Austin, at McGill University in Montreal, a 98-year-old professor of psychology comes to her office three days a week to do research. Brenda Milner is best known for having discovered in the 1950s the seat of memory in the brain, a finding that provided a foundation for the field of cognitive neuroscience.

A few years ago, at age 95, she won three prominent awards which came with money to continue research on how the healthy brain’s intellectual left hemisphere coordinates with the more aesthetic right side. Dr. Milner, describing herself in a recent New York Times story as “still nosy, you know, curious,” says her motivation for continuing to go to the office is personal as well as professional: “I live very close; it’s a ten-minute walk up the hill. So it gives me a good reason to come in regularly.” Not that she ignores mortality. She works with postdocs but no longer takes on graduate students because they “need to know you’ll be around for five years or so and well . . .”

In the arts a striking number of the greats have turned out stellar work into late old age, including Bellini (died at 86), Michelangelo (d. 89), Titian (d. somewhere between 86 and 103), Ingres (d. 86), Monet (d. 86), Matisse (d. 84), Picasso (d. 91), and O’Keeffe (d. 98). The esteemed British writer Penelope Lively, now 83, continues to write and publish. In a recent profile in the Times she said, “I wouldn’t know what to do if I wasn’t writing. I’d feel very restless. I know if I start something new I may never finish it, but it’s what you do. A writer writes.”

Our time on this planet is precious and brief. Let’s be sure to make good use of it.

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2 Responses to “Do Not Go Idle into That Good Night”

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  1. This is just what I needed to hear today Duane! I particularly like the line: “You have to draw on a fair amount of experience in order to be able to put ideas together.” That will last this old lady through a day of trying to make new things happen!

  2. Duane Kelly says:

    Glad it was helpful, Elizabeth. I struggle most days too.

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