Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
I am still reeling a bit from the experience of attending Anna Deavere Smith’s riveting but also devastating show about death and dying, “Let Me Down Easy,” which just closed at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
As it turns out, the show was an appropriate way to prepare for Dr. Marc E. Agronin’s “How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old” (Da Capo, $25). The very first passage in the book describes the dissection of the corpse of a 98-year-old woman, a class exercise in medical school and “a dehumanizing rite of passage,” as the author puts it.
Now practicing as an adult and geriatric psychiatrist at Miami Jewish Health Systems, Dr. Agronin invites us to join him in confronting the human soul within the aging body, an experience that “force[s] us to look momentarily into an eternal abyss and trigger[s] unanswerable questions about life and death that can bring wonder as easily as fear and despair.”
No prescriptions for long life are offered here, as Dr. Agronin warns us. “I am interested solely in honestly exploring the experience of old age through the lives of my patients,” he writes. But he does hold out the hope that we will learn some lessons about an inevitable and often distressing rite of passage. “These lessons promise not the end of aging but a new beginning even as we continue to age.”
Like Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland (“How We Die”) and Dr. Spencer Nadler (“The Language of Cells”), the author is a practicing physician who is also a gifted writer, a compassionate healer, and something of a philosopher, too. He is deeply literate, and he decorates his book with apt selections from the Bible, Shakespeare, and the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and T. S. Eliot, among many other sources. But he is too brave and too honest to content himself with rhapsody, and his book — exactly like Anna Deavere Smith’s show — confronts us with moments of pain and loss. Sometimes, he confesses, it is the patient who makes the final prescription: “There is nothing more you can do for me,” said one dying woman named Emma. “It is time to die.”
He writes frankly about the challenges that he faces in his medical practice — the hard cases and the hopeless cases .— but he also looks for and finds moments of redemption. “As a doctor to the aged, I have discovered that I must embrace this uncertainty and hold on tightly, often plunging in up to my elbows and hoping — sometimes against hope — that persistence and faith will prove correct,” he writes. “I have seen, however, that regardless of the outcome, our greatest humanity emerges in the desperate process of caring for someone old and ill.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve.
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