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Author Marilyn French is approaching 80.  She tells of a recent afternoon as she slowly made her way along a city sidewalk.  As she hobbled along, French passed a man her age also using a cane.  He said, "Consider the alternative."  French wryly observes that that's what all old people say about aging, and adds, "There are days when the alternative seems preferable."  

French is a best-selling author and feminist scholar, perhaps best known for her book, The Women's Room. A smoker for over 40 years, she was 63 when she was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 1992.  French lived to tell the tale in A Season In Hell, a memoir of the ordeal. For starters, there were concurrent chemotherapy and radiation treatments; the onset of arthritis and diabetes; a thrice broken back; kidney infections; and a six-week long coma. Still, she managed to write two books during it all, Our Father and My Summer With George

Coming out the other side, however, there was still old age to be reckoned with. French speaks of "depending on the kindness of strangers" as she ages.  As difficult as it is to be the object of pity, she points out, people are solicitous of an elderly woman.  Assistance is offered at every turn: offering a hand to balance her, guiding her around a barrier, helping her over a patch of ice. "Sometimes I could not have managed without them," she says.  "Sometimes, I could."

French says that there are compensations, though.  One is no longer bound by the anguishes of youth.  "Adolescence... the first job... not knowing how to act, not knowing how people felt about you, wondering if you fit in or not." At a certain age, you no longer care, she says.  "What is there to be afraid of anymore?"