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    illustration of an old man and young boy sitting on a park bench

    What Are Old People For?

    Fredrik Backman’s My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer, and A Man Called Ove

    By Collin Huber

    January 14, 2021
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    Reading Fredrik Backman rekindled my love for fiction. I first read one of his novels following my completion of four strenuous years of graduate school. I couldn’t remember the last time I had read fiction, or even enjoyed enough leisure time to consider doing so. But by the time I turned the final page of My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, I had purchased all of his published works to start reading as soon as they arrived.

    His stories begin playfully with casts of memorable characters, but as each plot advances, Backman leads readers step by step beyond the exterior measurements of a person. He opens his characters, exposing their wounds and joys to confront readers with the true value of a human being.

    Thanks in large part to the worldwide success of his 2012 debut novel, A Man Called Ove, Backman’s most memorable characters are old – men and women who have seen their fair share of winters and who likely wouldn’t catch a second glance were it not for their author’s curious gaze. His admiration for these individuals comes into focus through the patient care he takes in developing them as characters. As humans. Setting aside the charm of his prose and his affinity for sarcasm, the prominence of the elderly in many of his most beloved stories gives his work a deeply instructive value.

    In her 1968 poem “The Speed of Darkness,” Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” The stories we believe about ourselves – about the world we live in – matter. They undergird the kinds of friends we seek, the people we admire, the leaders we elect, the policies we champion, and the future we desire. More importantly, they form our moral imaginations, and as our culture increasingly values productivity, youth, and vitality, the elderly continue to be pushed to the margins of our imaginations.

    America’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis is only the latest event to illustrate the lack of prominence older generations hold in our minds. About 40 percent of the more than 350,000 deaths resulting from the virus have come from nursing homes and long-term care facilities – whose residents make up less than one percent of the US population. The problem surfaces in a variety of other ways. Recent studies have shown that 8 percent of seniors face food insecurity, 33 percent accumulate monthly debt after purchasing essentials, nearly half report regular feelings of loneliness, and one in five suffers from mental illness and/or substance abuse. It’s time we re-examine our moral imagination toward the elderly.

    What is the meaning of life? “Company,” answers Noah, the young boy at the center of Backman’s 2016 novella And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer. Noah’s grandfather responds, “That’s the best answer I’ve heard.”

    The novella is a dreamy narrative that sails along the current of three relationships: Noah, his father, and his grandfather, who suffers from what appears to be Alzheimer’s. They gather “at the end of a life” in a hospital, where their complicated love for one another emerges from the grandfather’s fading memories. It’s a tale filled with regret for past mistakes, many of which revolve around failing to live out Noah’s vision for the meaning of life. The plot always swings back to that common refrain of company. Backman describes one of the grandfather’s greatest joys as “the privilege of being disturbed” by Noah. No matter what task he’s in the middle of, he welcomes the young boy’s interruption simply for the joy of spending time with him.

    That’s a difficult sentiment to square with a culture in which an aversion to idleness is so ingrained. “We have become a society in which people feel constant pressure to work and to be productive, even when they are theoretically resting. And that’s under normal circumstances,” writes Constance Grady at Vox. Grady notes how the rise of industrial capitalism conditioned American society to privilege time-oriented productivity, which, along with a sprinkle of Puritanism, helped over time to moralize productivity as good and idleness as evil.

    We want to do more in less time, earn more with less effort, and we’ll sleep when we die – all of which places very little priority on activities that cannot deliver any kind of return on investment. So what place is there for those who are no longer productive? Could the economic narrative we live and breathe have something to do with why we lose sight of the elderly – their lack of productivity denigrating their place of importance?

    In Backman’s novella, Noah and his grandpa sit on a bench overlooking the landscape of the ailing man’s mind. Its town square is littered with memories of his departed wife, corny jokes, and high-rises filled with files of those life moments he wants to remember most. There’s also a road in the distance blocked off and shadowed in storm clouds. It used to be a shortcut home, but it has grown more difficult to follow with each passing day.

    Throughout the novella, Noah’s grandpa periodically recognizes how his mind has begun to slip, prompting fits of agitation and fear. Yet each time, Noah calms him with a simple phrase: “Don’t be scared.” Then he begins to recount the memories his grandfather can no longer remember.

    Our obsession with productivity conflicts with a commitment to this kind of patient presence, leaving little room for the privilege of being disturbed.

    Years ago, I attended the funeral of a friend’s grandfather who left behind a legacy of faithfulness and integrity. During the eulogy, one of the man’s sons shared how his father taught him that it was possible to take your wealth with you to heaven. All you had to do was invest it in those who will be there.

    One of the advantages that comes with age is the ability to view life through a longer lens. I’ve witnessed this in grandparents and other seniors who have played influential roles in my life. Without their model, I don’t know where I would have learned to believe that a prodigal child can be restored; that marriage is a gift of grace, even in hard seasons; that hope for calmer waters in difficult times is no trivial posture, but a mighty act of faith.

    Our cultural moment does not prioritize these values, which live in the shadows of instant access, efficiency, and youthful vitality. The church is complicit in this problem as well. And we are all lesser for it. In My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (2013), Backman explores the wisdom older generations offer to the young, especially during painful times.

    Elsa is nearly eight years old and best friends with her grandmother. She lives with her mother and soon-to-be stepfather in a building that houses a memorable arrangement of misfits and outcasts as tenants. With no real friends her age, Elsa has latched on to her grandmother, who makes it her mission to enliven each day of Elsa’s life.

    Company, embodied presence, value – these aren’t cheesy Hallmark sentiments; they are the building blocks to the foundation of a joy-filled life.

    Together, they inhabit an imaginary world complete with kingdoms, knights, forests, monsters, and even its own language, until Elsa’s grandmother receives a cancer diagnosis and dies in the hospital soon after. Before her death, however, she penned a series of letters that she tasks Elsa with delivering to those the woman felt deserved an apology for the ways in which she failed them in life. In doing so, Elsa begins to see her grandmother’s past merge with the imaginary world they shared together in a way that shows “the best stories are never completely realistic and never entirely made-up.”

    The novel is a moving exploration of how stories can comfort and heal in times of grief, but it’s also a demonstration of what that grief leaves in its wake. Despite her parents’ separation, Elsa is well cared for. Her father and mother remain amicable, her stepfather dotes on her lovingly, and her grandmother gifts her a financially stable future in her will. Yet none of it can replace the absence of Elsa’s grandmother.

    During the funeral, Elsa recalls a quote she heard someone say before: “The mightiest power of death is not that it can make people die, but that it can make the people left behind want to stop living.”

    The title character of A Man Called Ove is the walking embodiment of death’s power to make someone left behind long to stop living. Ove is a crusty old curmudgeon who has lived in the same home for decades, watching the neighborhood grow up around him. Having lost his wife a few months earlier, he plans to hang himself in the living room of that home to end his misery and ensure he never becomes a burden to anyone else, but through a series of timely mishaps Ove’s plans are foiled again and again.

    The book has become the standard bearer for curmudgeonly protagonists in contemporary fiction. It’s the not-altogether-unfamiliar story of a stone-cold heart learning to beat again, à la Ebenezer Scrooge or the Grinch. Backman peels back the exterior for readers to see beyond the surface of Ove and learn to love him, even as the same thing is happening to Ove and his neighbors.

    He bemoans technology, then purchases an iPad for a child. He gripes about immigrants, then becomes a de facto grandfather to three of them. He wants nothing more than to die until he finds life in company. His existence becomes valuable to him again because it’s valued by others.

    Nothing can replace the mysterious power of presence. It’s why we hang family photos on the walls of our homes and pin crudely drawn crayon art to our refrigerators instead of the stock market’s daily index. They are mementos of life lived together.

    We need more stories to reflect that. Company, embodied presence, value – these aren’t cheesy Hallmark sentiments; they are the building blocks to the foundation of a joy-filled life. They require sacrifice, risk, and a willingness to resist the tide of the times, valuing all people for the simple fact that they are human beings.

    And that’s a story worth believing.

    Contributed By

    Collin Huber (ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary) is a professional writer and senior editor for Fathom magazine. He and his wife, Brittany, live in Dallas.

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