Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Do You Really Want to Live to Be a Hundred?

“Edie” turns 100 at the end of this month. She is not happy about it.

My brother-in-law’s mom is a total character. Twenty years ago, I suspect she was like Grandma Mazur in the Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich. In her youth, she was surely Auntie Mame.

Until recently, Edie had all her wits about her, but she has been complaining most of the decade I have known her, “I don’t know what the hell I’m still doing here.” Then she goes on a monologue grumbling to God, who apparently doesn’t know what He’s doing.

She’s actually in great health, overall, except her teeth are wearing out. She is outliving them. Her 75-year-old son says all the time, “She’s in better shape than I am. I swear; she’ll outlive me.” Teeth, sons—she leaves them in the wake of more longevity than the Energizer Bunny.

Edie has lost nearly all of her extended family, although she is fortunate to have her two adult children nearby. They spend what time they can with her, and she’s in a lovely board and care home that could pass for yours or mine. In fact, it looks a lot better than mine. Her room is spotless, and she loves to show off her trinkets and treasures when we visit. That’s about as excited as she gets about anything these days, although I hear coffee ice cream also gets a rise out of her.

I don’t know—but I suspect—her boredom with life has finally taken its toll, probably more a cause for deterioration than age itself. I can’t remember when she last had something to sink her teeth into, which may be why they are weakening. Sure, she likes seeing her daughter, son, granddaughter, and great-grandkids … but her spark has gone out.

I’ll never forget the day we first met. At the time, my husband and I were living together, not married. That made me suspect for starters. After her grand entrance, Edie took a piercing look at me—a head to toe evaluation. She announced, “My name is Edith. You can call me Edie. I ask a lot of questions. You’ll get used to it.”

Fortunately, I had been warned about her and was braced for her blunt nosiness. I came to be more amused than annoyed by her pointed inquiries; and she became very fond of me. I made sure we did her many kindnesses, always remembering her on birthdays and major holidays. I thought she was a kick in the pants, still do, and can’t help but love her for all her rough edges and downright crusty nature.

This Christmas, though, she wasn’t her old self. She’s starting to slip. “How old am I?” she asked me. Apparently, she asks others family members the same thing all the time.

When I told her she was almost 100, it was as news to her. “I’m gonna be a hundred? I had no idea I was that old. I never thought I’d live that long.”

At first, Edie’s lack of enthusiasm about life was such an antithesis to my own lust for it, I had a hard time accepting her longing for death. She has a plot back East and her funeral arrangements all made. She can’t wait to keep the date. I’ll miss her, but another part of me can’t help but hope she’ll get what she longs for.

Edie is my flip side. I constantly worry that I’ll run out of time before I can do what I really want to do. I don’t mind dying; I just mind doing it before I feel finished. Edie is done.

Over the years, I began to understand and even honor her desire to die, regardless of the fact that, so far, God won’t have it. We’ve chanted all the clichés about how He’s not done with her yet. They are not comforting.

Edie’s eyesight and hearing are fading. This was an eye-opener to me, no pun intended, considering I already have sensory challenges, and I'm forty years younger than Edie. Makes me wonder how I’d fare at 100. Further, it makes me wonder if I even want to belong to the Centenarian Club. A lot of joy went out of Edie’s life along with the ability to read books. The audiocassette player and books on tape we got her didn’t appeal, even before her hearing worsened. I’m sure I’d lose a lot of my spark without the stimulation of constant learning or entertainment.

This story may sound dreary, but I think Edie is telling us something about life. Life without passion is empty. We see people all the time who are physically broken, even mentally or developmentally challenged, but as long as they are doing something they love, they are vital. A hundred would be glorious as long as I still have zest for living and reasonable health. Otherwise, I don’t think so.

Next time I hear the clock’s loud ticking toward a vague Running Out of Time, I’ll remember what I’ve learned from Edie. She has helped me rethink things.

Maybe I don’t have to feel done before I die. Better to have some mountains to climb, some passions still stirring, and a well-padded To Do List than to be done and have life left over.


Postcript: Since I wrote this piece in January 2008, Edie finally got her wish. She passed peacefully last spring at the age of 100. This is a tribute to her.

Topical Link:
World’s Oldest Woman Turns 115


© Joyce Mason, 2009 – All Rights Reserved


Eileen Williams said...

As always, your post got me to thinking. I recently lost my favorite aunt. She was 88 and crippled from arthritis. Every movement was painful but she was a tough old bird and made the best of it.
The past several years, however, she started to complain a lot and seemed depressed. Her friends and family were rapidly dying off and, even though she didn't say so out loud, she was ready.
Yes, life IS precious but maybe you truly can have too much of a good thing.

Joyce Mason said...

Thanks for your comment, Eileen, and again, I'm sorry for your recent loss. It's difficult to come to terms with the fact that we don't live forever--but in our lust for life, I think it's good to examine at what point we're ready to accept our transition into the next Great Adventure. I believe knowing when we cross that line will help us "cross over" with ease, grace, and even a sense of exploring new frontier. I have always believed there is "something more," and when the time is right, I'm putting on my cosmic hiking boots and my Indiana Jones hat and shooting back to the stars!

Anonymous said...

At 64 with a 14 year old daughter, I am still wanting to live to 100+. Now--if I were sliding to veggiedom, maybe that would be another question. However, I do remember a wonderful woman I knew when I worked in a nursing home in Nantucket. she was nearly deaf. She was blind and her hearing was going, but her spark was still there. She could see my aura and for that she didn't need her eyes.

She talked to me with her hands and I told her stories by touch. I think as long as I have my connection to others and my vavavaboom, I'll still want to live. I've been thinking alot about this at my bolg

Joyce Mason said...

Vaboomer, we are completely on the same page. As long as I can communicate in whatever form, I'm in. Look at Helen Keller! It's exciting to see how your young daughter provides incentive for longevity and continued vaboom! Thanks for commenting.