cannot bear very much reality.
T.S. Eliot “Burnt Norton”
This was a week of joy. Wednesday my house cleaner returned and I don’t have to give over one day a week to vacuuming and dusting and a second day to ironing and floor washing. The windows are unstreaked and shinning. But, in doing those two days of cleaning, which was not sufficient, I realized a) what an effort at my age it is for me to do the work, b) how easy over time it would be to let things get dirty and then have a massive cleaning up or, perhaps, not, just live with the dirt.
This awareness roused the specter of B, my now dead neighbor.
The couple who sold me my apartment, a Belgian-German combo, introduced me to my neighbors, a nice, as well as a good thing to do, mentioning in passing that there was a woman around my age living alone on the first floor, the Principal. Blanca was my introduction to a side of Barcelona/Spanish life I would not otherwise have thought about and an education to me as an American largely uninstructed in a social system close to unimaginable in my country.
Blanca was a little older than I, 3 to 5 years. She had no money and had not paid rent in years. Asking around about her. I found the gossip was she had once been wealthy, very wealthy. This was presumed because she had had a chauffer driven car. That’s a sign of wealth. Her family had owned a store that made hats. Her husband had died, the money had melted away and she, becoming poor, had also become estranged from her son and daughter because she was mean and nasty. That turned out not to be quite the truth.
She spent most of her time in the Catalan library housed in the hospital across the street researching the history of the immediate neighborhood. I wish I had her notes. As time went on I think she gave this up.
The first cause for my American astonishment was that B was still in the apartment, although not paying rent. In NYC she would have been on the street after two months nonpayment. If she did not qualify for a state home she would really have been on the street or in shelters and probably dead within 3 to 6 months. But in Spain she was “a statutory tenant” because she had some sort of eternal lease and because of her age. Her landlord whom I met a couple of times at building meetings, five us of own the building, had once owned the entire edifice. Over the years he had sold off the apartments. I am sure he wanted her dead. I could understand that, but he was so obviously a pinchpenny I didn’t have much sympathy.
I would find B, when I came home from coffee with a friend, sitting on the stair, her small grocery bag beside her, getting her breath back. I would offer to carry the bag up to her door for her. Immediately, she would protest fiercely with many no’s that she was fine and not in need of my help.
Although clean she wore clothes over clothes in the winter, the holes in the top layer revealing the colors of the under layers. Our one sympathetic point of contact was my hats, which she commented on appreciatively.
The man on the second floor had some rapport with her. She let him do a few repairs for her. He, at one point, offered to replace all the broken windows in the apartment for her, there were many, with no charge her. She refused.
Although she had water, she had no electricity, and no gas. She received food through a Meals-on-Wheels program, delivered every morning and hung on her doorknob at eight am. But with no electricity she had no heat, and there were all those l broken windows, all winter, every winter. Sometimes I would see the beam of a flashlight flickering when I looked down at her floor from the patio area outside my kitchen windows.
The second floor neighbor told me that he went by the bathroom with his head turned away.
Although winded by the stairs, she was in feisty spirits and better than adequate physical abilities when I moved in. Things deteriorated, of course. She was visited by her social worker but was so vehement about not being helped that they tended to leave her be. I suspect they urged her to leave the apartment and go into a home. Very sensible but that would have been anathema to her, a capitulation. We old, hang on to our independence, with despair and desperation, until it is in shreds.
I no longer offered help.
Perhaps five years later things had crumbled sufficiently so that they forced her out of the apartment for three days to live with her son while they fumigated it and all of her belongings.
When I met her son once, it took me under five minutes to realize he was crazy. He stood on her threshold trying to sell me a camera, an excellent old one. When I refused, he seemed to wake up to a muddled awareness that perhaps he should not have made that offer.
In her last two years I saw from time to time, in the afternoon, the Meals-on-Wheels bag still on her doorknob. I would pound on her door until she answered to tell her breakfast, lunch and dinner were on her doorknob. I was terrified one day I would pound and there would be no response; she would be dead inside. Sometimes I asked my upstairs neighbor to do the pounding.
She also had a daughter who wanted desperately to help her. She was rejected, as were we all.
When I was on one trip or another, she became ill. They took her to hospital and from there, of course, to a home. That was the end. It took months, but she died.
The landlord’s first action was to have the fumigators in. Everything that creeps, crawls and scurries, I am sure, had a representative in her space. However, it took the penny-squeezer a couple of years to sell the apartment.
Negative role models are important as positive ones. B was a negative exemplar from whom I acquired positive proposals for aging: take help; ask for help; listen to what people tell you and think; don’t reject out of hand.
Male or female, there are few good examples of aging. Shakespeare offers us, all males, Lear, Timon of Athens, pompous Polonius, Henry IV, although he isn’t that old, Prospero who breaks his staff, drowns his book. The crucial factor in his being perhaps the one positive exemplar is that of his own will he abdicates his powers, not waiting for them to be taken from him. Because giving up your powers before they are wrenched from you may be one of the cruxes of aging.
There are books on aging, many written by young people, most written by exceptional people in exceptional circumstances, which tweaks the story. Fear of death or of the process of dying is occasionally talked about.
I don’t see anything craven about fearing death. A woman I knew who fought off cancer for years talked to the Dali Lama about her terror of death. He told her he too was afraid of dying. Why wouldn’t you be afraid of the unknown, no matter how many people have gone there?
Sometimes people just lose interest in life. My mother was one of these. She told me in a bank on 42nd Street in New York one day when she was in her seventies, “I can go any time now. I am not interested in being alive.” No one seems to talk about this mind set. Others, like her sister, my Aunt Liz, are just curious to see how the sun comes up tomorrow.
Two of my role models for dying are Alexandra David Neal, the first Westerner to get to Lhasa, who died at the age of 100 during a nap after going over her royalty statements and Montserrat Abelló, a Catalan poet, who rose at, I think, 93 from her table after lunch saying, “I need a nap,” and never got up again. Naptime is a good time to leave.
I am finding eighty to be the age of elder adolescence, meaning that as in adolescence there are disruptive bodily changes. I don’t like this. It isn’t just that I wake up with aches. There are a range of changes to your surfaces and organs–your digestion as much as your sexuality. Your skin is drier, rough patches appear. You may grow little things as though you are a disintegrating pier with barnacles and clumps of mussels.
If female you develop a tummy, a sort of round lump at the bottom of your pelvis, possibly before you are 80, but you will definitely have it in your 80’s. Sometimes dancers are impervious to this longer. Men get it too eventually. Something that has been holding things up in your gut has decided to let go.
My two big dissatisfactions physically are the tummy and the considerable loss of energy that takes place at 80 and increases each year thereafter. The gym helps but certainly does not solve the problem. It’s as though my energy is cheese being nibbled by a mouse. I sleep more. I do less. I have no metabolism to speak of. However, if I allow myself to be resentful I will become angry and defensive, a variation on B and that is not the way to go.
A loss that saddens me sad is my hearing. When I take out my hearing aids, I cannot hear my new cat purr, only feel the vibration in her body. Due to glaucoma I have developed a little blind area in my left eye.
Then there are the mental changes. Words suddenly amble off like truant children. Maybe they go down to the sea to build Gaudi castles. I find that if I am patient they often return in a few minutes. Names, however, take longer trips. They can be gone for a couple of days, whether to Gerona or Biafra I have no idea. People of great mental power I knew at Columbia ended up not being able to read their own books. That is terrifying.
The two things I do not want to outlive are my brains and my money.
We think we are all right because we do what we have always done and the mind in its groove is quite happy to putter along but challenged to think in a different way, given an alien task, it may come to a full stop.
While dealing with these changes we, or certainly I, am trying to cope with the presence of death in my life. It has always been there, although not particularly central. If at twenty death is central to your life you are either hopelessly romantic or neurotic.
As I have aged death has moved out of the wings of my theater to center stage. What seems to happen is that I am walking around it, or is it walking around me, seeing it from different perspectives, but always in its presence. It is dominant. In the US there is talk of elder depression for which doctors give pills. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that perhaps if you are living in the sphere of death you are going to be depressed until you work out this relationship; it is a relationship and, I think, most of your experience in life so far is used to create that liaison. One can, of course, ignore the whole thing and many do. For each of us it is different. Old age is an amazingly individual time period,
Although I have little control over my aging situation, progression, what control I have is mental and amazingly important to my well-being and the continuity of my personality, who I am. I need to know how old I am but NOT accept any of the dictums handed out by my culture about my age. I must decide and work at who I am within that spectrum of what 80 can be. Does that make sense?
Then there is the outside reaction to our aging, the condescension of younger friends. When I went off on my five month solo journey to China, Japan, New Zealand, Thailand and French Polynesia someone remarked, “Isn’t she cute to be doing that.” Another friend insisted that I must take someone with me, that it would be impossible for me to do it alone. I will not comment on what I felt but issue the curse that those who condescend should in their turn be condescended to.
I am closing with two poems one by an old friend, Harvey Shapiro, the other mine. Harvey’s is about breaking your staff and drowning your book. Mine is about what happens when you don’t.
HOW CHARLIE SHAVERS DIED
He had a gig
but he was hurting.
His doctor said, play the date,
then check into the hospital.
That night, when the party ended
and the band packed up,
Charlie start to give stuff away—
his watch, his rings—to the women
in the room. Then
he circled the room with his horn
playing: “For all I know we may never meet again.”
At this point, the man who was telling the story
in the locker room at the Manhattan Plaza gym
and who had sung the line slowly, with
a pause between each word, began to cry.
There were no licenses when she learned to drive,
just straight dirt roads between green fields of wheat
that bent to her wind, which spurned with its passing heat
the ripe green heads and made the rabbits dive
into the thicket of swaying stalks. It was
her way to delete her mother, the world. Once wed
she drove away from arguments, buried
them in the speed of her anger, which became both cause
and effect. When she picked up the hitchhiker Death,
that beggar’s first demand was the alms of her eyes;
the cataracts were the blur of his breath,
his exhale shrinking her boundaries without reprise.
He shut her highways, lowered his border bar,
till the only way out was on his road, in his car.