I’m talking to a friend, a former neighbor, and the mother of one of my childhood friends. Dorothy is 97 years old, an age that most people consider old, yet she starts out most sentences “When I get old . . .” She’s not being coy. She doesn’t feel old and has no serious health issues except when she crochets too long and her hands hurt. She has just returned from a summer in Wisconsin at the family lodge, where she lived alone, although with the help of friends around the lake.
We’re sitting in her living room, the same place I used to play with her daughter some 60 years ago. Dorothy loves knick-knacks, and her small house is filled with them, like the mechanical flower that shimmies when the sun hits it. Her house, like Dorothy, radiates warmth and cheer. Almost every piece of furniture is covered with the colorful afghan blankets she has crocheted over the years.
Yet her life hasn’t always been easy. She grew up on a Wisconsin farm, in a big family, where you worked from morning till night. After she married, she and her husband bought a tourist lodge in Wisconsin, where she cleaned cabins, took reservations and cooked. She lost her daughter, my friend, when Deborah was in her 20s, a tragedy that seems unimaginable, even 50 years later. Five years ago, her husband died, and two weeks before I visited Dorothy, her only remaining sibling died.
What does it feel like to lose all your siblings, to be the last one standing? What does it feel like to be living in the same house haunted by the ghosts of two people you loved? Dorothy has lived in the same neighborhood for more than 70 years, but one that is changing all around her, with new people moving in and out; none of the original neighbors are left. How do you handle all that loss?
You adapt. You make friends with the new neighbors; invite the 60-something neighbor next door to your backyard patio to share cookies and laughs. You let the neighbors park in your large driveway until it’s clear they are taking advantage of your niceness and then you politely call them and ask when they will be moving their cars.
But Dorothy is luckier than most older people, because she has a son who lives a block away, who checks on her every few days, gets her groceries and drives her to her doctor’s appointments. She dotes on her two grandchildren and brags about their accomplishments: one an Olympic gymnastic coach and the other an architect.
The last time I visited her was two years ago with my mom. The two had been good friends for all their adult lives. But age had taken its toll on my mother: memory loss, dementia and some bitterness that her life wasn’t what she expected. In contrast, Dorothy, although three years older, was spunky and cheerful. Shortly after that visit, my mom died, and it’s hard for me not to see how our attitudes, whether positive or negative, shape our lives, especially as we age.
When Dorothy’s husband suffered a heart attack several years ago at their Wisconsin lodge, he needed immediate care in a nearby nursing home. She had to leave him there to return to her Illinois home, some 300 miles away. She and her son faithfully visited him every few months, while it became apparent he was getting better care in a rural community than he would in the dense suburbs of northern Illinois. I know she missed him, but I never heard her complain. This was the best solution.
Now, she says, “When I get old” she wants to move to the same nursing home, where she knows she’ll be well taken care of. I don’t expect that will happen anytime soon. She still has some living to do.