It’s a blustery afternoon at the hilltop senior community where my Grandmother lives and I’m feeling guilty because I didn’t finish my hot chocolate. Of course, Grandma, my father’s mother, doesn’t care about the wasted hot chocolate, she didn’t make it, an infernal capsule coffee machine did. Grandma cares about whether or not I enjoyed my time with her, that I felt comfortable and wasn’t hungry or in need of anything. But I feel bad because I fear the half mug of watery cocoa that I’ve left behind will speak louder than my insistent words.
“It’s fine” is something we rarely mean.
When thinking about the elderly, I’m reminded of a poem by Frost about loitering leaves of gold. You know the one. As a child, I wondered if my Grammy, my mother’s mother, had said goodbye to her appliances before she left her home in Huntington to visit us in Nashville. Grammy had cancer treatment at the hospital in the city. It didn’t work. My mother’s father had a complicated relationship with my mother and, by proxy, with me. We were polite but distant. He died a few years ago. My Grandfather, my dad’s dad, wrote for the local paper, a fact I rarely appreciate when I bemoan how my family are music people and I’m only good at words. He died when I was two. If there’s an upside to any of this, it’s that when it comes to grandparents, I never had to play favorites.
Congrats, Grandma, you won.
If there’s a downside, it’s that my perception of what it means to be in one’s golden years is based on a single person. Not that I’m complaining. Grandma is one heck of a human being. But when one’s entire fundamental idea of aging gracefully centers on a single example, one makes some weird assumptions about all senior citizens. More than once, in conversations with others about others’ elders, I’ve been surprised to learn they don’t go to church like it’s their job or play piano like it’s their religion, both things that to me will forever be associated with my grandmother who played the organ at the family church for over 50 years, professionally. She gave me a hymnal for Christmas once. It has my name on the front.
My Grammy (mom’s mom) had Snoopy dolls and made me Eggo waffles.
A week or two after the hot chocolate travesty, I’m sitting with Grandma at lunch looking at the dark chocolate cake we would be eating for dessert. The dark, almost black icing reminds her of the time when my father, as a child, climbed up on the kitchen counter during the night and ate special gingerbread men cookies. Grandma found him on the floor later with the black icing all over his mouth. They were Halloween themed cookies. Dad has never been able to live this caper down.
Days later, I’m getting on a plane to California hoping I hugged Grandma well enough. I never know how to show I mean it.
The struggle for sincerity gets harder when there’s difficulty in communication. It’s a battle we fight knowing we may not win, but there’s valor in the attempt, right? It’s the thought that counts. Except these words are also rarely believed, at least by me, especially when I say them.
Waiting on that plane to California, I met a lady. She’s in her golden years and her name is Silvia. Maybe it’s Sylvia. I don’t know how she spells it. I don’t even know if it’s her real name but she said it sincerely so I believe her.
Often when traveling in airports, they put those of us in the wheelchairs near the ticket gate, out in front of the regular people seats. It feels not unlike one is supposed to be the entertainment. The polite Assistance Worker parks you there, in the open area, and asks you if it’s fine. Of course, you say yes, but you don’t mean it. If there’s an upside to this center-stage positioning it’s that you get to meet the other people needing assistance too. This usually means older folks who, like me, appreciate the extra help.
Killing time in Atlanta waiting for that flight, Sylvia is my wheelchair neighbor. Whether it’s my adorable face or her weary boredom, it doesn’t take long for us to strike up a conversation.
But first, we had to have the assistance worker move her chair closer to mine. I mention this only because when Sylvia tried to explain that she wanted to be closer to me so she could hear me talk, the assistance worker had difficulty with the concept. I guess most people ask to be farther away from one another.
Sylvia tells me about herself not in one long history but in bits and pieces. We talk about traveling, she used to fly in a private jet, and our preferences for reservations. She doesn’t like them. Sylvia used to show up in Europe with her husband and spend the weeks driving. In my mind I’m already writing an indie film I’d never want to watch. I am terrible about indie films, but there’s a closeness shared by the two of us in this airport conversation that makes me long for indie films all the same. When she reveals that she used to teach, I knew then why I felt so comfortable around this stranger.
Half of my family are teachers. The other half lovingly puts up with them.
Sylvia asks me what I do for a living and I proudly spit out “professional writer. Sort of.” She shares with me a personal story about two things her third grade students wrote. One is tragic. The other, tragic but funny. Both sentiments expressed by the young authors are way beyond their years. I’d share them with you, but they’re not mine. Just know, I’m not one to gush over poetry and yet, sitting in front of everyone else at the gate, I’m giggling and trying not to cry at the same time.
She offers me handmade, colorful chocolates. They’re beautiful and I’m terrified to eat one until I look at the booklet to make sure I don’t eat one with coconut. I can fake liking most chocolates, but coconut remains a challenge. I still remember my first, and last, Mounds bar.
The gate agent calls for boarding and one by one those of us in wheelchairs are whisked down the ramp. My seat is in the back, with the cool kids, so I don’t see Sylvia again. I gave her my card (which is just Tuck.Life handwritten on a piece of paper), so maybe I will hear from her again. Maybe not. Either way, it’s fine.
Hours later, at the baggage claim, I’m looking for my luggage when I overhear two men having what I think is a serious conversation about a stolen belt. The old guy in the wheelchair next to me is wearing a sea captain’s hat. He has always traveled with a belt around his luggage so he could identify it easily. His son, or middle aged friend but I like to think it was his son, is there to pick him up. Together they are watching extra closely for his bag because, as the Sea Captain explained, someone had stolen his identifying belt.
“It had a lot of colors on it. Looked like a gay belt.”
A gay belt?
“Yeah, it was a rainbow. A gay belt.”
At this point, I giggle and the pair notice me a foot away. The Sea Captain is quick to clarify something.
“I’m not gay, but the belt was a gay belt. It was great. Who else would have a gay belt?”
Neither me nor his Son elect to state the obvious.
“Why would someone take it? I miss that belt.”
His luggage comes, sans belt. The Son picks it up and they’re gone.
Two days later, I’m standing in line at Chik Fil’A because I have needs and those needs involve waffle fries, when a young girl asks the Chik Fil’A worker, who looks to be in his mid-twenties, to refill her drink. Orange Fanta. He talks to her in the friendly, patronizing way adults talk to children, and asks if she would like to learn the worst word in the English language. Immediately, my attention is piqued. The Worker tells her the word is “awesome-tastic”.
I know, I’m disappointed too. I think the worst word is [REDACTED], especially when said at the Grand Canyon.
The young girl smiles at the millennial worker, at least I think she does, because he laughs heartily over this revelation. But when she turns away the look on her face is all too familiar. Whatever you say, old man. The Worker, still giggling about this encounter, shares it with his fellow chicken peddler. They enjoy self-satisfied grins. I enjoy the waffle fries.
Getting old is scary. We say it and we mean it even though most of us wish we didn’t. You can find hundreds of quotes by famous people on the internet about getting old but I fear none fully remove the dread of encroaching decrepitude. Trust me, I looked. But when the gaping maw of existential fear threatens to devour me whole, I think about the conversations I’ve heard over the years and it’s usually enough to remind myself that while life is full of big, terrifying problems, life’s also got a metric ton of missing belts.
And there’s giggling.