The problem with old people is that they have a habit of dying.
And the problem with me is that I know this, but I keep loving old people.
Last time I checked, roughly half of my close friends were over eighty.
I’m decades younger myself, but from hanging out with these friends, eighty has come to seem positively young to me. Not to mention fun.
So I don’t temper my naughty jokes because a person is eighty or ninety.
I only realize that I’ve referred to octogenarian Jane as “Kiddo” or to Muriel as “my dear girl” if someone else points it out.
They are my pals. Jane, Muriel, Mae, Marion, Merle are among my closest. Harry, Mr. Smith, Henry, Bryan were also my pals. My mother, Louise, most of all.
I love them. I loved them.
Elderly people make the best friends and I love being in their company.
Which makes The Grim Reaper my big enemy.
I find myself wanting to fight off The Grim One, wrestle him to the ground, or at least tell him to take a hike.
Old people speak their mind.
“I’m not elderly. I’m old!” says my 80-something friend. “It’s okay to use the word. I don’t mind.” I can almost hear her shrug into the phone.
It’s as if being candid is not an option at this stage in their lives, but mandatory. After all, with a relatively short time left on the earth, who has the time to lie?
Yet they have also learned to temper their frank assessments with grace. At least the old people that I love do.
They have a way of passing on affection with criticism, of pointing out the error of my ways without drawing blood.
Sometimes, it’s delivered in an observation so astutely phrased, it makes me want to rise above my knuckle-headed ideas about how to solve a problem.
“With your manner, Cynthia, I just know you could manage to get the point across without causing hurt”.
Gosh, that’s diplomatic.
“Have you ever thought that this person may just be very shy and intimidated by all your qualifications?”
Well no, I hadn’t thought of that. But now that you’ve mentioned it, I’ll have to review my harsh assessment of that person we were just discussing….
Offering criticism in such a positive way is a skill you can learn in school or in the great learning-place of life. Most of my elderly friends have learned at the latter, and that makes them experts.
Elderly people have tons of insight to share, if you’re willing to listen.
It may take a little time. They may have to insert a story from long ago, a memory of something or someone that helped them learn an important life lesson.
“I remember when…”
The moment you hear these words, you may think “Here goes another long story… how much time do I have?”
But chances are, whatever I’m about to learn is more than worth my time.
Elderly people keep in touch, sensing when you need them to call and make you laugh at life’s travails.
One moment I’m howling with pain, a long-term gift from a car accident. But minutes later, the phone rings and I’m howling with laughter.
It’s one of my old friends, telling me a dirty joke, knowing that I need to laugh.
When I reconsider, I think what I’m trying to say is that my elderly friends are wise and kind people. And that I’m blessed to have their friendship.
But, there is still that problem: the fact that they tend to die.
I should temper that blanket statement with this explanation: It’s not that they necessarily want to.
Some, though barely mobile, still love life. They love to do things, to hang out with their friends, to go shopping, to share a good joke. They’d like to stick around much longer.
But some people, it’s true, simply want to die. I had one such friend.
He was ill, with no improvement in sight. He depended on others to take him around, sometimes even to get from one room to another. He couldn’t enjoy the activities that gave him pleasure.
In some cases, there’s no-one left who shares the person’s memories. No-one to remember the people they grew up with, the times they lived. They’re left trying to explain an era to younger people like me, who love them but don’t remember.
Worse is when the person him/herself can’t remember. In their clear moments, they’re terrified of a future in which they’ve lost their ability to recognize loved ones, or even themselves.
Whatever the reason, they’ve had enough of living. They’re tired. It’s time to go.
I’ve come to understand this: the problem isn’t theirs.
It isn’t just that they die, or that one or two may really want to.
The problem is mine. That even as The Grim One makes his plans for us all, I love my friends, and I’m never quite ready to let them go, no matter what their age.
I have to work on that.
Luckily, some old friends will still be around — with wisdom to share. Bless their hearts.
In Memory of Harry.