When I see a certain type of old man, my heart gives a little lurch. Two types, actually, that remind me of two different stages of my father's latter years. There is the guy with wispy, wild, white hair, scrawny of elbow and knee--which you can tell because he's wearing his khaki shorts and a t-shirt. He's definitely old, but still alert, still determined, puttering through his errands slightly off-kilter.
|My parents around age 70.|
The other type is frail and unfocused. He sits in a wheelchair or leans heavily on his walker, looking slightly lost. Busy people move around him, talk about him, schlepp him from one place to another. He's fretful, trying to get their attention to tell them something, or he's dozing in the midst of the bustle. I can tell from across the parking lot or across the room that he's hard to talk to. Deafness and confusion and querulousness work together to deny him easy conversation.
|My dad's 80th birthday, sort of between the two stages I've described.|
I could, of course, be projecting. Physical and mental decline definitely happen with age, and the elderly men I notice have that in common with my dad. But I also know that my dad was deeply unhappy the last few years of his life. He missed my mom every moment of every day. The rest of it--loss of mobility, loss of independence, loss of work and responsibility and socializing and all of that--was secondary. The light had gone out of his life, and he was just waiting for the end.
I wonder what it's like for the old men I find myself gazing at. Are they still balancing good days with the bad, still lighting up when certain people walk into the room, still finding new things to be amazed by? Or have they started pulling into themselves. losing interest in the world as the world seems to lose interest in them?
Do they get enough hugs? It seems to me now that I should have made sure my dad got enough hugs.
There's a tragedy in dying too soon, regardless of age. When my mom died, her plans were interrupted. She'd ordered seeds for her garden, signed up for fabric art exhibits. She was still making new friends. It felt so unfair for her body to stop cooperating while her spirit was still so vibrant.
Is there also a tragedy in living too long? An hour in any long-term care facility will probably show the answer to be yes. In the end, it doesn't truly matter which is worse, dying while you still have plans or dying after you've lost enthusiasm for life.
Your kids, it turns out, miss you either way, and still seek your face in white-haired strangers.