Whenever you read a newspaper interview of someone celebrating their 100th birthday, it’s always upbeat. Invariably, the centennial celebrant is asked some variation of the same question.
“How’d ‘ya do it, you old geezer?”
“What’s the secret to your longevity, grandma?”
The answers too are always upbeat. Sometimes they’re genteel. Sometimes a little salty. Always sincere.
Something about a bite of chocolate, a glass of wine, prayer, a pack of cigarettes, maybe a bottle of beer each day.
Amazingly none of the sweet ultra-elders complain about their aches and pains which I’m sure they have in abundance. They are, to a person, lovely and gentle. I admire them, but I’m not sure I wish to emulate them. The century mark seems a long, lonely distance to reach. To get there, these extreme oldsters undoubtedly suffered a lot of losses and said a lot of goodbyes.
It is about those losses and goodbyes that I’d like to discuss with a centennial senior if ever I get the chance. I yearn to know how they handle so such sadness, grief, and loneliness.
How do they, who have lived so long and seen so much, cope with the inevitable, accumulated pain they have amassed?
I know one much older woman who day-by-day is rewriting and editing her life story, excising — or at least toning down — the bad parts. Her children who barely survived their abusive, drunken father look on in disbelief as she tells the grandchildren of her happy marriage. They don’t correct her, but sigh and grit their teeth with a collective “Huh?”
Is that the trick to reaching a serene 100th birthday?
I am not by nature a downbeat person, but I do feel the burden of the losses I have already experienced. My parents had me late in life. My two oldest brothers were two decades older. All are gone. Likewise, my favorite cousin, also much older. Three best friends died young. The number of yahrzeit candles I light is many.
Now, at age 68, I am beginning to witness the health decline of my friends. It’s inevitable of course, but it is undeniably painful.
Right now, two beloved friends are in a terrible state. One has Parkinson’s. He and his wife have just made the heartbreaking decision that he will move to an assisted living home.
Another friend has just won a battle against cancer. We all rejoiced but even before his health could rebound, he was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, the horrifying disease that destroyed Robin Williams and led to the comedian’s suicide at 63. Our friend’s behavior is so erratic that his loving, protective wife shields him — and us — from painful visits. My husband has been friends with this man since grade school. Jon and I sit helplessly by as they both suffer. We send love. We wish for miracles. It is pathetically little to do for people we consider family.
What makes the decline of both these men so particularly difficult is that they are among the kindest, most generous, big-hearted people I know. “Goodest” isn’t a word, but it is the word that comes to mind when I think of them.
In Yiddish, we say gutte neshuma — literally a good soul. It applies to these two, one Catholic, one a member of the Mormon church. They both have been model members of their professional, religious and volunteer communities and as fathers, were models for the parents Jon and I worked to be.
It is childish, but I still harbor the illusion that bad things should only happen to bad people. These men simply do not deserve what is happening to them, nor do their loving, loyal, tender wives.
It is with these thoughts that I think of the 100-year-old “survivors” and wonder what they can teach me about aging graciously, not fearfully.
I suspect their secret is gratitude. Gratitude for all the joys they experienced along the way. Gratitude for each new day. Yet, how they hold on to gratitude and prevent it from being overshadowed by the sadness challenges me. How do they do it?
I’m also curious about how ultra-seniors think about their futures. I know that at 68 I still work. Still have professional goals. Still exercise. Travel. Kiss my husband. Am still vain, dye my hair, and try new make-up. But at age 100, what does a person desire for their remaining tomorrows?
I guess, in truth, I have lots of questions for super oldsters. Maybe I’ll just have to wait until I get there — if I get there — to learn the answers.
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