CAMDEN, Maine — Words come easily to Audrey Philcox, a retired academic, social justice activist and current lay minister at her assisted living facility in Camden, who can talk with warmth and wit about many subjects.
Writing those words down, however, is a different story. Audrey, 74, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 35 years ago, is confined to a wheelchair and can use only four fingers of one hand to painstakingly write in longhand the chapters of her book about getting older. The so-far untitled work is a labor of love for Audrey and two friends, retired teachers Steve Moro and Perry Goodspeed, who meet with her for an hour a week to type up her rough draft and revise it together.
“She’s an inspiration, because in spite of her physical limitations, her mind and spirit are as sharp and vibrant as ever,” Moro, of Rockport, said last week at the Windward Gardens facility in Camden. “It’s about the life of the mind and the indomitable spirit to keep going.”
Audrey’s voice was soft and her smile came easily, shining out above the clerical collar she wore in anticipation of the service she would run later that morning for other residents. Although her life has taken her on many diverse adventures, the connecting thread has been social justice, she said. That passion began in college, when she was taking a required government class at Boston University during the days that South Africa’s official position was apartheid.
“I said, ‘That’s wrong,’ in my sophomoric voice,” she recalled. “My professor said we don’t talk about right and wrong, so you have to go over to the religion department.”
She did, discovering that her hero would be Nelson Mandela. Years later, just after South Africa had ended apartheid, she joined a group traveling to that country with a peace foundation. They met some of Mandela’s brand-new governmental Cabinet officials and visited their homes, and Audrey offered, after dinner, to help wash up. They told her no, but she insisted. When she was drying dishes, her hostess told her she had never done dishes with a white woman before.
“I said, ‘it’s my privilege,’” Audrey remembered.
She taught college for 27 years before being invited to be an associate minister in a liberal congregation in Old Lyme, Conn.
“I was the first woman in 355 years,” she said. “I took a lot of convincing to do that, but I was finally convinced. It was the most difficult, the most rewarding job I had.”
Lessons she learned from that work as well as her own life have been useful for her writing.
“I’ve observed and learned as a minister and learned from living. My former husband left me, and I was on my own after that,” Audrey said. “But you can do it. My parents raised me to be independent and taught me to do the best wherever I was.”
So far, her book has several sections. One, titled “The Awakening,” is about become aware of getting older and preparing physically, mentally and spiritually. Another, “The Fall,” is about the challenges — and the often literal falling that happens to aging people. One section, “The Pit,” is about life in a nursing home, and a final section is about eternity.
“I have come to the conclusion, along with Einstein, that we’re either matter or energy. The one thing we can’t be is nothing,” Audrey said with quiet conviction.
Her book will include useful information for people as they become older, including the importance of cultivating a quiet hobby that can be enjoyed even with limited mobility.
“It’s important to try and stay as healthy as you can, but not to let health determine your life,” she said. “It is the biggest thing people worry about, but there are many more things to think about. Keep interested in the wider world! Keep interested in others. And if you’re lucky enough, spend as much time as you can with your grandchildren.”
Audrey, who studied and taught philosophy, said that she is a stoic.
“I believe you can’t determine where the winds of fate will come from, but you can control your attitude toward them,” she said. “So keeping a positive attitude is important — and makes life more fun, too.”
Moro said that after finishing the book, the trio will set their mind to getting it published.
“I would think people will be interested in preparing for old age,” Audrey said.