Bloom Late…learning how to be ninety

I’ve always wanted to be a chrysanthemum, rather a daffodil. Chrysanthemums bloom late.

Benjamin D. Esham / Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-SA-3.0-us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Beautiful, late-blooming chrysanthemums

When I was twenty-three, one of my colleagues announced she was getting re-married. She was thirty-three.

“How nice,” I thought, “that a woman so old can find somebody to marry her.”

Don’t shoot me: I know how awful that sounds. Happily, my definition of old has stretched by years and years and years, especially since I became a senior citizen myself. (And I cringe at the phrase “can find somebody to marry her.” But that’s another post.) These days I get senior discounts without even asking for them, and no one ever asks to see my ID. As one of my granddaughters sweetly confided: “Grammie, you’re the oldest girl I know.” 

Some of you may smile benignly and say, “What is she talking about? Seventy-one is not old. She’s a kid…I have bunions older than her.” Bless you.

I want to age well, and I don’t have much time to figure out how. I’ve begun to go to the gym more, walk in the park more, use my brain occasionally. I hope it helps though I realize it takes a certain amount of dumb luck to stay healthy to a ripe old age. Accidents and disease happen. I think about the ladies in the Alzheimer ward to whom a storytelling friend and I tell stories twice a month. Those ladies never planned to spend their last days in a nursing home, eating orange Jell-o, listening to our stories—and forgetting them. 

As it happens, thanks to storytelling and a lifelong learning group I belong to, I also have friends and acquaintances more or less ninety years old who are able to be active and engaged in life.

Recently I went to the ninetieth birthday party of a friend of mine from a writing workshop. She writes beautiful prose about her childhood home. She paints and writes poetry too. She is charming, gracious, and warm. She smiled broadly when she told her guests that she never thought she’d be lucky enough to reach ninety. Nice attitude, don’t you think?

Another friend also celebrated her ninetieth birthday in the past year, a fellow storyteller. The summer after her birthday, she and her family visited Yosemite–a long trip from NY state. She tells wonderful stories that are usually funny and always ring true—of her girlish crush on a baseball player living next door, of a walk across a frozen Niagara Falls, of boys who got trapped in a water tower on a hot day, of a loathsome lady who knew the answer to the riddle asked of King Arthur, “what is it that women want?” She is open-hearted, encouraging, frank, and humorous. 

One woman is leading weekly walks this spring in the state park near my home. I remember a hike she led a few years ago. Her passion for the environment and her knowledge of the plants we saw are stunning.

A former art teacher is leading a drawing class for seniors. She’s taught these popular classes every semester since she retired, twenty years ago. 

Another friend in my writing workshop is in several other groups as well. She self-published a book of her poetry a year or so ago and is editing a collection of poetry that her poetry group is producing. She’s a photographer, just signed up for a storytelling workshop a friend and I are leading, and writes a blog. When I ask her why she’s so active she said simply “because I don’t have much time left.”

Remarkable women, all of them. They have surely endured their share of hardships and loss and will endure more. But they choose to embrace life and look forward to the possibilities still open to them. They read, take classes, pursue their hobbies, laugh, meet with friends old and new, and care about the other people in their lives.

I don’t mean to gloss over the challenges of old age—or maybe I do. Friends of mine are dying or dealing with serious health problems and I become afraid. 

But I remember my friends who are ninety—or almost ninety—or over ninety.  I need them and other people like them in my life to inspire me, give me hope, and get me off the couch. 

When I grow up, I want to be just like them.

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My Mother’s House

My Mother's house now. The giant spruce is gone.

“I’ve always taken out the garbage myself. I don’t intend to change now!”

But an instant on an icy brick sidewalk shattered my elderly mother’s fragile, sponge-porous femur.

“Put on a cast and let me go home! It’s just a broken leg. People get them all the time. I’ll be fine once I get home.”

Instead the doctor had a serious talk with us. He explained why he couldn’t operate and added, “If her leg heals–a big, big if–it will take many months, and she’ll be very weak. At her age–she will almost certainly never walk again–or go home.”

Her months-long hospital stay began. For awhile, she was sundowning at night, lost in elderly delirium. She lashed out at nurses and us, disinherited my brother and me often, repented in the morning. My sister-in-law, my brother, and I sat beside her nights to prevent her from unstrapping her splint to get out of bed. Her plan was to call a taxi and go home.

“Brace yourself, “ she once warned my brother. “You’re about to hear some language you might not have heard before.” He waited, looking forward to choice new words.

“DAMN!”

He smiled wryly: “Heard that one already.”

Once she asked, “Why did you let them lock me in this dark, dank basement with rats everywhere? I want to go home.”

“Mom, You’re in the hospital, the Royal Alec. The sun is shining through your window.”

“I’m on a dirty old scow. And you know how I hate boats. See the people scowling at me? Get me home.”

Another time she said, “Margaret, last night I heard a terrible ruckus in the middle of the night, outside, on the grass. A little girl, maybe six, climbed through my window into my bed. She was afraid, so I let her stay all night.”

“That was kind of you,” I said.

When her delirium was under control, my sister-in-law, brother, and I took turns at the hospital. Evenings I went to her home: the home of a woman forgetful, legally blind, and never much of a housekeeper anyway. I needed to be busy, so I cleaned out her refrigerator, threw away the jars of jam with the blue mold on top, the dried out cold cuts, the casseroles with the funky smells, the stale lemon cookies. She’d always objected to my re-organizing her belongings. Now she’d never know.

Every morning I drove back to the hospital, and she begged to go home. She swore the hospital would be the death of her, and she would not go anywhere, except home. Once an orderly came to take her for X-Rays, but she stuck her good leg out sideways to prevent him from getting the stretcher through the door. It took several aides to gently force her leg close to the stretcher. At the elevator, she challenged the orderly:

“So, where are you taking me? The morgue?”

It was pretty funny. But the orderly looked away because he didn’t know what to say to a cranky, funny, very old woman with a huge cast on her leg.

The leg refused to heal, despite excellent care and a succession of splints, a brace, a cast. The doctors and social workers recommended a nursing home.

“But she wants to go home. Can we possibly take care of her there?”

“No.” They explained why not.

I knew they were right. It took three aides to get Mom from her bed to a wheelchair. Her cast was unwieldy and she was rarely cooperative.

The social workers promised to help her accept this decision, promised to play the heavy so she could blame them, not us or our failing resolve.

“We want to take you home, Mom. But they won’t let us.”

Her house in Edmonton had been the first she’d owned since she was a young farmwife in New Brunswick. One day, so long ago, she’d had to run to her neighbor’s house, carrying my older brother in her arms:

“Get help,” she’d said. “Our house is on fire.”

She’d left her baby, rushing home to salvage what she could. It wasn’t much. Later she’d joined the line of neighbors passing buckets of water from the well to the flames. But the house had burned to the ground and they’d lost most everything.

“I miss the photographs the most,” she’d said.

She and my father had built a new house, board by board. But then came World War II, and my father enlisted in the army. They never lived in a house of their own again until he retired. Instead, we lived mostly in a series of PMQs, permanent married quarters. Houses she was not allowed to paint. Houses where she wasn’t allowed to plant flowers more than eighteen inches from the foundation. Houses that looked just the same from one coast to the other.

After Dad retired, my parents bought a little three bedroom, white ranch. Dad moved hundreds of wheelbarrow loads of topsoil and compost to prepare a bed for the lawn. He planted an apple tree in the back yard that produced bushels of tart green apples every year, and a blue spruce in the front yard that eventually grew huge and shaded the house too much. The rugged yellow and pink rugosa roses that he planted in 1962 were still blooming decades later. Mom’s raspberry bushes outgrew the narrow strip between garage and fence. That house was her refuge, and it was there she planned to die.

Almost a half century after they moved into the house, my sister-in-law and I were visiting nursing homes for whatever life Mom had left. We found a beautiful place, near enough for her friends to visit. We moved in her favorite recliner and her red comforter,  bought a flat screen TV and cheery houseplants for her window. But she never bothered to watch television, never remembered her plants.

Come evening I began to sort everything else she owned. My sister came from her farm and together we emptied and cleaned the huge freezer in the basement where freezer-burned hamburger was nestled beside years-old packages of homemade applesauce and frozen raspberries.

I emptied the cold room in the basement where Mom had stored canned goods and staples. Many labels looked quaintly old-fashioned, some from a grocery store out of business for a good fifteen years.  I emptied cans, rinsed them, put them in recycling. When I opened one, it exploded and sprayed pumpkin over me, the kitchen walls, the ceiling—even into the dining room.

Daytime, at the hospital, I took her to hairdressing appointments, to cooking classes, to the Friday afternoon parties. She begged me to take her home instead.

Evenings I created piles of sheets, tablecloths, pillowcases, napkins, dishes, and frying pans. The basement and the garage had their own piles–of Christmas tree decorations, fabric remnants, gardening supplies.

How could I wait? Afterwards, I’d be flying home to my husband. My brother and his wife worked, and my sister and her husband lived on a farm a hundred miles away. This was my job to do.

I joked that if my mother knew what I was doing, my life wouldn’t be worth a plugged nickel. If my mother knew–it would break her heart.

Mom’s leg didn’t heal and was always unmanageable and excruciatingly uncomfortable. In the end, the doctors amputated, knowing full well the risks, but hoping to relieve her discomfort and lack of mobility. Sadly neither her body nor her mind accepted this last assault.

In her last days, she continued to ask to go home. But the home she talked about was a different place, a two-story house out of her past that I had never known, perhaps the house that had burned to its foundation so long ago.

She died two weeks after the operation, shockingly sudden, much too soon.

Soon after the funeral, we all gathered at her house, surveyed my neat piles, chose the things we wanted. I flew home.

The people who bought the little house cut down the big spruce tree, dug up the roses in the front. Now the sun must be shining inside the living room. They have young children who may be playing on the old apple tree. I am happy that life has come back to the house that my mother loved.

As I remember my weeks of sorting and discarding the belongings in her home, I ache over my sad necessary betrayal. And, more than I expected, I miss that contrary, stubborn woman who was my mother.

*

Copyright by Margaret French