Thursday, May 2, 2019

Old People

            I was buying groceries and had to phone Kim. “I forgot the grocery list. It’s on the kitchen counter – could you read it to me?”

            “It’s not there. Did you remember sandwich bread?”

            “Wait a minute – the list is here in my pocket.”

            Does this ever happen to you? A bit more often than it used to?

*          *          *

            About twenty years ago I wrote a poem about old people who Kim and I observed. Here are some excerpts: 

Old Women / Old Men

Was your Aunt Vivian really brilliant?
She forgets who I am, what state she
lives in, how old she is. She puts signs
in her window: “Help!
I’m being held prisoner!
Call the police!”

Or there’s Ted’s bald mother
scaring children with sudden
outbursts of applause. She
apologizes for being old, tells
the lady who cleans her that
the pay better be good.
Nights, amazed, she rages against
the locked door of her room.

Eugene, freshly retired, his cataracts
surgically cured, gives this advice:
“Get all the money you can. Forget
what they tell you about family and friends.
They all go away. Stuff every dime into
an IRA. I did, and I’m a happy man.”
And he strides up the aisles of Kroger’s,
loading boxes, bottles and bags into his cart,
then disappears into the frozen food section.

But there’s that guy at the home
whenever we pick up Aunt Vivian. He’s
always in the living room. He rises
from his chair as we enter, gets halfway
up, forgets what he’s doing or why,
starts to sit, remembers, rises, pauses,
forgets. He’ll sway half out of the chair
for an hour, his eyes stunned open
to what he can’t quite believe.

            Is that what it’s like? Prisoners? A locked door? Frozen food? Halfway to somewhere? But there’s also this from the poem:

But that woman at the garage sale,
trim in shorts and hiking boots, tan,
tight-skinned, white hair thick and curly.
She spoke German to her grandchildren,
telling them they did not need more toys.
You said, “See?” I said, “German.”

Kim, of course, has some German ancestry.

            Is old age something that happens to you? Is it something you choose? Are you ridiculous if it happens to you but you do not choose to accept it?

            The examples above to the contrary, the answer to the question of how to be old is not multiple choice. It’s an essay exam. And I prefer, here, the definition of “essay” as “an effort to perform or accomplish something; attempt.”

            One of the things I learned in English 1,2 in college is that there is no formula for a good essay. Writing, in essays, is an act of exploration. And so we attempt to come up with a good way to be old, in some form or another. Either sit or get out of that chair.

*          *          *

            “Kim – do you want an afternoon cup of coffee?”

            “I’d love one.”

            The coffee pot was not sitting in the coffee maker as it should be. I looked on the counter next to it, on other kitchen counters, and in the sink. I looked on the porch where we sometimes drink coffee. I found it in the refrigerator. How did it get there?

            We did not ask, though I was concerned by how quickly I found it. Kim’s response when I told her where it was: “I’m surprised there was room in there.”

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