The novel The Darling by Russell Banks (HarperCollins, 2004) is told in the voice of Hannah Musgrave, the ultimate privileged child of the 1960s, a former Weatherman sought by the FBI, widow of a minister in the Liberian government, and caretaker of threatened chimps. The book begins with Hannah’s decision to return to Liberia in her late 50s. “We return to a place,” she writes, “in order to learn why we left.”
The following is Hannah’s magnificent description of aging and of death, as her story unfolds in the book’s opening pages.
* * *
I’m an elder myself now. Fifty-nine this year, in late middle-age, but old enough to have watched other people, my parents, for example, find themselves suddenly elderly and soon dead. Old age is a slow surprise. And at a certain point one’s personal history, one’s story, simply stops unfolding. Change just ends, and one’s history is not completed, not ended, but stilled — for a moment, for a month, maybe even for a year. And then it reverses direction and begin spooling backwards.
One learns these things at a certain age. It happened to my parents. It happens to everyone who lives long enough. And now it’s happening to me.
It’s as if the whole purpose of an organism’s life — of my life, anyhow -– were merely for it to reach the farthest extension of its potential, with the sole purpose of returning to a single cell start. As if one’s feet were to drop back into the river of life and dissolve there like a salt. And if anything counts for something, it’s the return, and not the journey out.