BY SARAH DAS GUPTA
It had taken five very sexy young firemen to move me to the ambulance on that hot July afternoon. I couldn’t move my right side, which obstinately refused to obey orders. A barrage of X-rays confirmed that in addition to metal knee joints, I was now the proud possessor of a broken hip.
Spending one night in a geriatric ward, listening to sustained screaming, commode-moving, temperature-taking, and blood-pressure-checking, convinced me I needed to have something worthwhile to do.
When my daughter next day threw a magazine on my bed full of various writing competitions and suggested casually, ‘Why not try your hand at these? After all, you’re never too old!’ it was the start of a new era at eighty.
Immediately, my life had a fresh focus. As a teacher for over 60 years, I had been ruled by timetables. Now, I had goals and aims to strive towards. The empty days had renewed purpose. Instead of lying awake at night listening to bloodcurdling screams and cries of ’nurse, nurse!’ I lay quietly, working out complicated plots of demonic rituals, predatory villains and hospital sagas. I had a wonderful, readymade cast all around me of elderly victims, pompous consultants, exhausted nurses and suspicious visitors. My daughter brought my computer that I managed to use, one finger at a time, propped up with three pillows. The long, empty days were filled with poems, stories, and characters that forced themselves into my imagination. No time to grumble about islands of lumpy vegetables floating in gravy or hanging on anxiously for a bedpan.
For the first time, I saw the advantage of being classed as ‘geriatric’. I looked at the trainees struggling to wipe bums or check sugar counts at two o’clock in the morning. I could reflect on over 75 years of triumph, disaster, weddings, christenings, funerals, leafy Surrey villages, the burning ghats of Kolkata (Calcutta), the last bombs of 1944, the present horrors of Ukraine and Ghaza. These were not only lived experiences; they were events, people and places considered, and reconsidered, from the perspective of time and memory.
Once you stumble towards 80, you begin to think of your legacy. To be honest, mine would be meagre enough. An apartment, leasehold, was the sum total of my wealth and achievement. I could now throw in a few scribbled notebooks and the odd poem and rattle the skeletons in the family closet. I could write myself into believing that some inquisitive descendant would open those yellowing pages with curiosity. I had not yet discovered that your own family is the least interested in your developing genius.
I finally had time, which works in different ways for an octogenarian. On the one hand, I had plenty of time – 24 hours a day in the geriatric ward or, let’s say, 22. Two hours’ sleep was the most you could hope for. Yet, on the other hand, time was valuable. At 80, you count it in months, rather than years.
You don’t really care about public opinion or peer pressure. Most of your generation have died or are ‘in care’ where literary magazines and publishing wars rarely make it through the wrought iron gates.
You are at an age when, at last, you can call a spade a spade. You can say ‘die’ rather than ‘pass’ or dismiss the whole experience with a jolly euphemism: ‘Oh, Doris. She’s popped her clogs’.
Yes, this advice – that you are never too old – gave me belief in my endeavours. The only challenge I now have is that my family has started saying, ‘You’re spending too much time writing. Do something else!’
About the Author
Sarah Das Gupta is an 81-year-old emerging writer from near Cambridge, UK, who has also lived and taught in India and Tanzania. Her work has been published in over fifteen countries, including the US, UK, Canada, Australia, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Germany, Romania and Croatia, among others. Her aim is to publish a small collection of poetry. She is interested in history, art, folklore, horse racing, parish churches and the environment.
Sarah was the winner of the December 2023 My Writing Journey Competition.