It’s no country for old men, or old women, either. The screens and ’zines idealize smooth skin and supple muscles, strong bones and clear minds. So, if we live to be very old, we are no longer part of America-the-beautiful. Other cultures do better, but here in America, frail bodies and failing minds don’t quite fit into the go-go, mobile, me-first lifestyle.
My parents, who are 90 and 94, stayed with me last week. We were alone, the three of us, and the experience was memorable. My folks live on their own and are quite healthy, considering. Considering is the key word, because it implies the deficits and infirmities that inevitably come with advanced age.
My dad has memory problems. He wants to sleep most of the day. My mom, a traditional homemaker, has taken on many responsibilities that were once handled by my dad — this at a time of her life when she doesn’t want that job.
The fact of us being alone together made the experience illuminating and somewhat sad. I asked them what the best thing is about living such a long life, and my dad said, “Just being here.” My mom said, “We got to see our great-grandchildren born.” Then she said, “But we don’t get to see any of them very much anymore. No one visits.”
She is lonely. She and my dad were great partners when he was more fully engaged in his days. During our visit, I noticed that while he sleeps away the day, she reads or tries to wake him up to go to lunch or take a walk — also a job she doesn’t want. But she is his wife of 67 years. She shakes him awake during the day because she sees him drifting away. The metaphors are all too apparent.
Being together for a week is different from an overnight visit. My parents’ routine is unimaginably slow. My mother tells me to “slow down.” She says I don’t know how to relax, but we’re living in different worlds. My parents need at least an hour’s heads-up before leaving the house. There are the searches for the reading glasses, the eating glasses, the distance glasses, the cane, the hats and the sweaters. In a restaurant, my dad could study the menu, possibly for hours, before coming to a choice. So I offer a suggestion. My mom says, “You know your father doesn’t eat beef.”
I say, “I said beets.”
My dad says, “I like beef.” And so it goes, and goes.