I’ve always had older friends, and I look to them as role models for what my life might be like as I move through my 70’s and into my 80’s and hopefully into my 90’s.
C. used to live in Rochester, then moved back home to Virginia’s Tidewater region to be closer to her daughter. C. and I used to get together regularly for late afternoon chats before my move — I left Rochester first. She always served tea in lovely china cups and offered me home made ginger snaps. She and Franklin had a fire lit against cold winter afternoons, real wood of course. They wore cardigan sweaters. They read a lot of books, print version and hardcover, which were stacked up all around the warmly inviting rooms of their two story wood frame city home. They had a huge porch on the front with a two-person swing held up with a thick chain, and lots of plants. She’d been a social worker, then an elder activist determined to make nursing homes more like homes and less like institutions. In that quest she was fierce. Her health didn’t decline until her 90’s. First she lost propioception, a sense of herself in space. That was manageable with the help of walking sticks, which gave her two more points of contact with the earth. Then her brilliant, incisive mind was overcome by dementia, not manageable. But she was home, where she’d grown up, with the familiar rhythms of southern life and the loving care of her daughter.
J. is also in her 90’s, still living in Rochester in a high rise assisted living community near my old home on San Gabriel Drive. Her late husband lingered in poor health for twelve years after a devastating heart attack, and they were difficult years. When Jerry died so suddenly I said to J. that I would have given anything for him to have survived, that I’d have taken care of him no matter his condition. She looked at me with a steely although not unkind gaze and said, “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
I wish, as I age, for C’s unending grace and J.’s steely truthfulness.
Each of my friends has suffered losses, big ones, as they’ve moved into very old age. I expect my next ten years to have losses as well, because it’s the normal arc of life. At every other stage, losses have been balanced and usually exceeded by gains: new challenges, new opportunities and relationships, new insights, new capacities. That’s what I’m not sure about: what the balance will be over the next ten years. Thoughtfully observing other lives can point to some answers, but can’t reveal my answer — every life is unique. Gains at this age are different in quality from stages of my life before, when I felt I could have tackled anything if I put my mind to it. Going back to Meryl Streep in Mama Mia, I’m not going to be jumping ten feet in the air and touching my toes. Not going to happen — and not for Streep any more either, I’d wager. But I also saw a clip of her on The View with Amanda Seyfried, the young actress who co-starred with Streep in the film. Streep was speaking with the maturity and wisdom of an older, highly successful actress to a much younger, still emerging one. This stage of Streep’s life, although she’s a few years younger than I am, doesn’t look half bad.