Kids, don’t get old.
Hank’s Grandmother Meggie was born on January 1, 1899, and died in early 1999, at just over 100 years old. She lived in her own house with all marbles intact until the last couple of months. When she died she was almost exactly twice as old as I am now.
I met Meggie in 1988. She was a Helen Hayes look-alike, lively and interested in life, but Meggie didn’t like being old. In fact, one thing she said often was “Kids, don’t get old. It’s hell getting old.”
I can see her point. She lost family and friends one by one, including two husbands, until she had no peers; nobody who knew the sights, smells, and sounds of her youth; nobody who could reminisce about long-shared experiences. She watched people die suddenly or deteriorate over many years, one by one, until she was the last one standing of her generation.
Of course, when she said, “Kids, don’t get old…” we always asked, “But, Meggie, what’s the alternative?” She never answered that. I think, though, that the main message was that time is short and you might as well go out earlier rather than later. That sounds grim, but Meggie just had a different perspective on time.
I try to understand it through a pocket watch Hank inherited. This watch has been passed down through several generations of men in his family, each at his 21st birthday. The first young man in the chain was given the watch on his 21st birthday in 1829. Daniel will inherit it from Hank in 2015.
One day I was discussing the watch with Meggie and remarked about how old the watch is.
“Oh, not really,” said Meggie.
“It’s over 150 years old,” I said.
Meggie paused for a second and said, “Yes… not very old.”
At the time we had that conversation, Meggie was well into her 90s. When she was born, the watch was 70 years old at which time the first young man who was given the watch would have been 91 years old, if he was still alive. It is technically possible for Meggie to have known every person who ever owned that watch, although it’s not likely given that the watch came through her husband’s family.
My son was born in 1994, five years shy of Meggie’s 100th birthday, so she even met the next generation to inherit the watch. So, she’s right. The watch isn’t all that old. In fact, nothing in this country is all that old when you consider that Meggie, as a baby, could have been held by someone born in 1799, as she held my son born nearly 100 years after her.
So, what’s my point? I think that a potentially fatal illness can give you a small taste of what Meggie learned. Which is, I think, that you all die some time, and you might as well do it by minimizing the twofold suffering of loss and deterioration. I think Meggie comprehended eternity and figured we’d all meet there soon enough, and maybe sooner is better than later. After all, there’s neither sooner nor later in eternity.
Or maybe what she meant is this: The original design is that we weren’t meant to get old or suffer at all, so we’re not all that good at it. Suffering is simply not part of the “things we do well,” like going on vacation, walking around the block without getting short of breath, doing a full day’s work, or trimming a hedge without having to take a week to recover.
So, I get a brain MRI on Tuesday morning to see if the gamma knife surgery I had in August worked and to see if there’s more cancer in my brain. If you’ve never had one, you don’t know the delights of being stuck in a small tube, contemplating your mortality while the machine makes pounding sounds in your ears and other vocal-like sounds that say things like DIE DIE DIE!
I won’t have the MRI results until either Thursday or Friday, but I’ll try to keep remembering that life is short no matter the results. I’ve been extremely tired and crabby, so that’s going to be difficult!
Pray for good results, though, and that I won’t run screaming from the MRI room in a fit of claustrophobia.