“I am getting old, Mary.”
I looked at Mrs. J, not knowing exactly what to say. She was 91-years-old. She was fashionable, feisty, sharp, and savvy. She was impeccable in her cashmere or cable knit sweaters, bright pink lipstick, and jewels that brightened at the catch of the light and only enhanced her inner brightness. Her eyes were a misty blue gray from her fading sight. She was outspoken with declaring: “That’s a bunch of malarkey!” or “That person is just a screwball!” She was the grandmother I never had growing up.
I did not meet my grandparents until I was close to 10-years-old. This was mainly due to the fact that my father left his family when he was barely 20-years-old to North America. When I finally did meet my paternal grandparents, I thought they were the most remarkable beings that represented living history in my life. I could not get enough of them. My paternal grandmother and I could barely communicate because she spoke Shanghainese, Mandarin, Cantonese, and not a lick of English. My Chinese was broken and a linguistic struggle that made me dependent on body language, hand gestures, facial expressions, drawings, and finger pointing to my grandmother. Yet, my paternal grandmother and I had our own special language with the focal point as juicy Chinese spare ribs and any and every food she thought I would savor and she could stuff me with—not a difficult feat at all, considering the foodie that I am! My paternal grandfather could speak English. He was a poet and painter. He also possessed the most graceful moves with his long limbs flowing in tai chi movements. My paternal grandfather and I would play Chinese mahjong and cards together. We gambled with food and pennies. We never said much, but we always did so much that have made for memories that I treasure. I think grandparents and the old are such a special and vital part to us growing up. For a short time, they lived with us. Those were some of the best times of my life.
Outside of my biological grandparents, though, was gutsy and gung-ho Mrs. J. She was blunt, matter of fact, and had a rough sandpaper laugh from her countless years of smoking. She accompanied and helped my mother drive me to the emergency room in the then bad area of the Bronx when I was the sick child revolved around my ailing kidneys. She welcomed me into her home when I was the latchkey kid of a single father parent; I actually forgot my keys on more than one occasion. Every year, she sent me a birthday card with the $20 bill saying how much she loved me. Every Christmas, I visit her with my home baked goods and talk at least an hour with her—usually more. As the years have gone by and I have grown up, they have grown old. Her and my grandparents and all the elderly who I have met have been a staple of support in my life who have taught and shown me some of life’s greatest lessons with their experiences that have brought them great and invaluable intelligence and insight. I am only fortunate enough to have been the recipient of such warmth and wisdom.
“Mrs. J,” I said, “You are as sharp as a tack. No one could or would even try to mess with you!”
“That’s sweet of you to say, Mary, but, the truth is that I am getting old. My eyes are going. My body always aches. Look at my fingers and hands from my arthritis. Everything and everyone goes when you get old. You become yesterday’s news. No one cares about the old. I am an old lady. Do not get old, Mary.”
But I will get old. We will ALL get old. We will all experience illness and sickness in our lives either with ourselves and/or the people we love. We will all see and feel deep sorrow externally and internally. Our freckles will fade to wrinkles. Our hair will turn gray or even fall out until we are like bald newborn babies. Our bodies will fall apart and have dull aches and sharp pains. Our attitudes on life turn from innocence and eagerness to disenchanted bitterness. Yet, as our outer shells disintegrate, our inner minds are filled with such wisdom and ways that are also a part of growing old. There are no shortcuts or easy ways about with the hands of time ticking away from growing up to growing old. Just because the people we love or our own bodies deteriorate on the outside does not change the core center of us on the inside. Maybe you could call it the soul. A different physical form on the outside does not and really should not mean any less love or care, but actually beckons for more love and compassion. Children may bring out the fun and laughter in us. The elderly can only bring out our core compassion, sense of understanding and duty, and patience as the ultimate virtue that is more required than ever in this fast-paced world. I am only chronologically 36-years-old, but I feel mentally aged. I feel like and always say that I am an old soul and child at heart. I have always connected and felt closer to the elderly. It saddens me that we live in a society that cares more about babies and birth and the youth and young over caring about the elderly who are overlooked in probably the most pivotal points in their lives with their bodies declining and their sense of control that slowly slips away from them. I know this sounds odd at 36-years-old, but I do hope that I can embrace the aging and wise-up process rather than recoil from the reality of all of this. But, most of all, I hope for love keeping on and increasing at a time of such strength and fragility that comes with growing old for myself and for others.
I said to Mrs. J, “I care about the old, Mrs. J. I care about you.”
She looked at me and I felt like she was seeing inside my words and not just at the surface of them and said, “I love you, Mary. More than you will ever know.”
I’m not sure if my love is enough, but it is the little that I can only hope can be a lot for the little time that she has left.
Our society seems to shun aging because aging ultimately leads to death. If you could stay young forever, would you? Was there ever a perfect age or time for you? What is ‘old’ actually considered in the chronological, mental, emotional, and physical realms? Did you have your grandparents growing up? Do you think that grandparents growing old are an intricate and very special part to us growing up? Do you fear getting old?
Keep smilin’ until we meet again,