“There’s nothing wonderful about being 104.” My mother was calling from Lauderhill where she lives at Forest Trace, a senior citizens residence. “You keep telling me there is and I say, No. There is nothing whatsoever wonderful about being a little old lady who everyone thinks has ‘lost it.’”
“You haven’t ‘lost it,’ mom, quite the contrary.”
“That’s your opinion. Mine is different. And I’m old enough to know when someone has lost it. And that includes me. Why just this morning I couldn’t remember where we lived in Brooklyn.”
“On East 56th Street,” I said, trying to fill in the memory gap for her.
“That I remember. But what number on East 56th Street is what I can’t remember. It was 305 or 406. I’m all mixed up, and it’s making me unhappy.”
“If I can remember correctly, I think it was 205.”
“You see, if you had lost it you wouldn’t even remember when I reminded you of it.”
“So why can’t I sleep at night?” She was moving on from concern about her memory, which in fact is quite good, excepting a few dates, street addresses, and an occasional name.
“That I can’t tell you, but I do know it is not uncommon for older”—I emphasized the comparative older—“older people to have difficulty sleeping through the night.”
“With the day I’m fine.”
“Fine? I’m not following you.”
“Then pay better attention,” I thought it a good thing that she was already losing patience with me. To me this is always evidence that she is still feisty, not overly depressed, and full of as much live as anyone is entitled to expect at 104. Or 90, for that matter. “I’m talking about sleeping during the day. At that I’m a world’s champion. And speaking about champions,” she added without missing a beat, “have you been watching the Olympics? On TV? You can watch it 24 hours a day.”
“Only at night, when they show some of the more popular events—swimming, gymnastics . . .”
“This I hate. Then they only show things when Americans have a chance to win gold medals. They forget the Olympics are a time for all counties to lay down arms and come together in peace to compete and . . .”
“It sounds as if you have been reading up on your history of the Olympics.”
“I listen whenever Bob Custard is announcing.”
“Bob Costas,” I corrected her.
“I like him too. But he looks so short. Like the gymnasium girls.”
“You see, you’re making my point for me—I’m losing it. I don’t know who the announcers are or the names of any of the sports—gymnasium, gymnasts. Costas, Custard. They all sound the same to me.”
“I get confused too. There’s so much going on.”
“You’re pandering to me, treating me like an old lady. Like everyone else.” My attempts to distract her weren’t working.
“As I say, there’s nothing wonderful about being 104. Or 103.”
“You know how many people there are in America who are as old or older than you?” I wasn’t sure where this was going and if it would result in cheering her up or depressing her further.
“I know there are more than 300 million still alive.”
“I think closer to 315 million.”
“Three hundred, 315 million, it’s all the same to me. Too many people. You should see the checkout lines at Publix. To me it looks like everyone who lives in America is waiting on line. Thank God I have the supermarket cart to lean on or I would be collapsing into a pile of old bones.”
“About 10,000. That’s how many.”
“You’re making my point for me. Only 10,000 are as old as I am. Out of 315 million. So what are my chances of living until tomorrow? Of for that matter today before I hang up?”
“It’s only an estimate.” I knew I had made a mistake getting us talking about age and life expectancy. I should have tried to keep us focused on the Olympics. So I said, “The Chinese, by the way, are doing very well.”
“At what? Outliving us or soon becoming the number one country?”
“Not that, though that seems inevitable. I meant in the Olympics. Did you watch any of the diving?”
“I did. And those Chinese girls, you’re right, were wonderful. Though isn’t it true that there are some questions about one of the swimmers? Who broke some kind of record? I think for swimming faster that the fastest man.”
“Yes, there are questions being raised about her. If she cheated by taking drugs.”
“This I can remember because it happened yesterday but I can’t remember where we lived for 35 years.”
“You did remember, mom, but just not the exact address of the house.”
“So what good am I if I can’t remember where I lived? Where you grew up?”
“The exact number isn’t important. More important is . . .”
“That, as I said, there is nothing wonderful about being 104.”
“But you have few physical complaints and your mind, in spite of what you insist on saying, is better than most 85-year-olds.”
“You keep coming back to that.”
“I do because it’s true.”
“But so are my odds of not making it through the night tonight. Which is why I’m not sleeping.”
I didn’t attempt to respond because what she was saying was actuarially true. The odds are in fact against her.
“You are getting old enough,” she pointed out to me, “so that whenever you now have a cramp or a headache you think it’s because you have cancer.” She paused to see if I would engage her about this. “I take from your ignoring me that you agree. But when you were 50 or 60 you probably thought when you were constipated that it must only be because of something you ate. Or when your head hurt it was because you did too much reading. Or that it’s just from tension, not from cancer.”
It wasn’t fair to say nothing, so I gave in, “True. What you’re saying is all true. Just the other day I woke up at two in the morning with cramps and thought . . .”
“It was cancer.”
“Yes. That was the first thing that came to my mind.”
“But it wasn’t cancer, right?”
“No. Just . . .”
“And you are all right? Watching what you eat? You have a nervous stomach, you know.” She has been telling this to me for more than 60 years. “But in my case, if I feel dizzy it could be a tumor or the beginning of a stroke.”
“That could be but . . .”
“In my case there aren’t any ‘buts’ left. This is what I mean about there is nothing wonderful about being this old. Ancient. Even if I haven’t fully lost it yet.” She emphasized the ‘yet.’”
She continued, “Every day could be my last minute. So I worry about everything. Every ache. Every pain. Even every twinge. And twinges I have hundreds of every day. And plenty of aches too. All of which I worry are my last ones. Because it is realistic, all things considered, that they could be.”
“I understand, mom.”
“Not really. To you, though you’re no longer not so young, it’s only a possibility. For me it’s my reality. So that’s why I keep saying, ‘There’s nothing . . .’”
“. . . wonderful about getting older.” I completed the refrain for her.
“That’s not what I said—getting older is what is happening to you. Getting old is what I am busy doing.”
With that I heard a loud crash followed by her telephone receiver bouncing on something hard like the kitchen floor. Worried, I asked, “Are you still there? Are you all right? Please, talk to me.”
“I’m fine,” she was breathless, “I just knocked over my tray and water glass. But I’m all right. There’s nothing to worry about. My hand shakes a little. That’s all.”
Having had her say about nothing being wonderful, she was trying not to alarm me and demonstrate to me that she was in reality fine. Better than all the other 10,000 as old as she. She still had a lot of pride about that. In spite of the occasional complaining.
“Turn on the TV right now.”
“What is it mom? What’s on?”
“Horses. Dancing horses. They are amazing. Though it’s probably cruel to do this to them. I can’t believe that ASCAP hasn’t protested.
“That’s the ASPCA. ASCAP’s about music publishing.”
I did it again, I chastised myself, reminding her that her memory isn’t what it used to be.
“But,” she said, ignoring me, “it is amazing what they can get those horses to do. Oh my!” she exclaimed, “look who’s watching in the audience. I think she owns that horse. It cost at least a million. His wife. That Romney’s. I’m sure his people will criticize the TV for showing her there with her fancy horses and rich friends and . . .”
I tuned out. If she was back on Mitt Romney’s case for having so much money I knew she was all right and that, in spite of what she claims, there is still something wonderful about her and her life.