I was with my father, then 92, in southern California, where he and my mother had come to escape Chicago’s brutal winter. But it had proved more difficult than he had imagined: being in a strange house, with an unfamiliar routine, and new people around, including nephews and nieces whose names he no longer remembered. It was exhausting, and he was sleeping 16 hours a day, nodding off during breakfast, in the middle of a conversation, or next to the Pacific Ocean, with pelicans flying over his oblivious head.
One day in La Jolla, as we were leaving an oceanside park, he stood up from the bench where he had been snoozing and announced that his legs wouldn’t move. My two siblings and I panicked, rushed to hold him up on either side, as we slowly made our way to our rental car. He managed to shuffle along, as I helped support him on one side. As we got to the car, he looked at me: “Kathy, someday you’ll be an old woman.”
It was a curse as much as a warning. And I understand everything he meant by that remark: that I shouldn’t be smug because I was strong enough to help him walk; that someday I would be as weak and helpless as he was now; that I shouldn’t assume I would always be able to move like he once did: a vigorous man who gardened, walked, bicycled and swam. I heard the regret, the sadness and the anger. I heard the reproach: don’t think this won’t happen to you.
And now his words resound in my head every time I have an encounter with someone who treats me like an old person, who thinks they have to speak louder or slower in order for me to understand. There’s the condescension from the barista at the local coffee shop when I take too much time to decide what kind of coffee I want or the impatience from the young person in the check-out line behind me at Whole Foods when I fumble with dollar bills and coins instead of just handing over my credit card.
I want to say, “Someday, you too will be old. The world will go faster than you can handle and will be indifferent or hostile to you. Someday, you too will feel overwhelmed by all the choices and latest technology. Someday you too will become invisible. “
It’s the curse of my father and the curse of each generation.
Ah, Kath! I know, I know. On the days when I am really feeling the despair of our times, I want to say those things to young people, with this caveat: “Should you be so lucky as to have an ‘old age.'” I am grateful for grandchildren, who all value my presence in their lives, and I am so scared for them.
Thanks, Verna. You are lucky to have grandchildren; they keep you young. My nephews keep me on my toes. But I don’t want to think about what their lives will be like if the world continues on its current pace.