Leonard Cohen and the Year I Became an Old Man

by Marshall Marcovitz

Leonard Cohen is staring at me from an old black and white photograph.  There have been rumors that he’s dying. In the photograph, he’s wearing a dark suit perfectly pressed, and a starched white shirt with carefully knotted tie. His thin, bandy legs are crossed exposing the knee-high compression socks he’s wearing to keep his feet from swelling. Just like I do. A plump, furry tabby cat sits at Leonard’s elbow. As always, he’s wearing a hat—a black Borsalino classic with a narrow brim. I imagine Leonard admiring himself in the mirror, lovingly combing his hair, and then stepping into his trousers with a funny little wiggle as he slides the zipper up.

Even when he was younger, Leonard Cohen often sang about the end of life.  “Well, my friends are gone, and my hair is grey/I ache in the places that I used to play,” from The Tower of Song is one of my favorite lyrics at this time in my life.  Just before Cohen died, he wrote, “You have a chance to put your house in order.”  That thought makes me think of my own mortality.  Now that I’ve reached eighty and my old friends are around that same age, I’m flooded with a Tsunami of illness– mine and my friends: In the year before her death a friend struggled with an untreatable illness. She spent an inordinate amount of time every day managing her symptoms. Struggling with illness is about vulnerability and courage, about anger and strength.

My friend Ben who lives in Northern California, in a melancholy mood, wrote to me about a poem he read: Elk at Tomales Bay by Tess Taylor.  He reminded me of the hike we took together there.  I thought about that hike standing in the cold sea wind in our short shirt sleeves. Later that night at dinner, sitting at our table at Hog Island Oyster Co. we were shucking and slurping cold, firm, plump Pacifics harvested a few hundred feet away.  Someone from a table close to us had spotted us at the end of the day and remarked on our toughness.

“Do you still have your toughness?” I wrote Ben.  “I feel that I am rapidly losing mine. If I live many more years, I think that I will look upon my 80th year as the year I became an old man. The year of falls and the carrying of canes instead of hiking sticks, the year of ingrown toenails and infections—the year when every task is a mental and physical challenge taking much longer than it should and much longer than it took a couple of years ago. And it feels like procrastination is the order of the day.”

More friends send me birthday greetings and the wishes they express fall into a pattern: “Wishing you tremendous joy, health and love on this special birthday. You are living a meaningful life. May it continue to bring you beauty in every breath.”

Cohen is resting his left hand on the handle of a cane. A rather regal pose, not a feeble picture at all. He’s not smiling. He looks seriously straight ahead. Eyes narrowed, eyebrows arched. I suspect he asked his barber to shape his eyebrows. “Make them look curved,” I imagine him saying.  Just like I do. I’d rather get a good haircut than obsessively recount my life now that I’m eighty. I could dream about sex, my fantasies, jealousies, and failures. Looking into the beginning of the end is beginning to feel like a Stephen King novel.

I think of the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s eight stages of development: The final stage: Ego Integrity versus Despair. His idea is that when we’re older, we face an existential reckoning: We can either make peace with our choices, as unwise as some might have been, or we can spend our final years in a stew of our own regrets. Leonard seems to have made “peace” his choice.  Which will I choose?


Marshall Marcovitz has been telling stories through words and photographs for many moons. He was inspired to write this piece by the music and poetry of Leonard Cohen—especially Cohen’s humor and humanity when approaching his own death.