And the Years Have Flown Away
Like the leaves on a mid-October day. A talk with my elderly neighbor, who is moving towards the end of her life.
Outside the living room window the cottonwood leaves are tossed by the late afternoon breeze, their usual bright yellow darkened by a harsh early frost. Just after I got home from Mongolia, our usually 65-ish October days were briefly blasted by a fall storm which dragged our temperatures down 60 plus degrees, an all-time record, in the space of barely a day. What has fallen isn’t gold. It’s dusky brown. Still, the leaves swirl prettily in the breeze as Emma (not her real name) and I watch. My house is just across the street, the aspens shattering a trail of brown coins over the grass.
Emma is watching the last of her years, in effect. Her home of the last fifty is wide open. People have been tromping through all day picking through the memories and touchstones of her long life. When she and her husband moved in, I was just arriving in Colorado, all excited and dewy-eyed, as so many others are doing right now.
Each item that a stranger handles carries the weight of six decades of love, kids, struggles, pain and happiness. The dresser, ten dollars, which had housed clothing lovingly folded and tucked away. Kid’s toys and remembrances. The dishes that served a family for years. Now, pennies for memories. She can’t watch. What she wants to keep is all jammed into a back bedroom, where she is, waiting for the march of strangers carrying the evidence of her long life away from her forever to Just. End. Already.
Emma’s 88. Her husband died suddenly of a brain aneurysm two years ago. That was her hard freeze.
The World Health Organization reports that on average, women live six to eight years longer than men. Right at the most vulnerable times of their lives, they’re alone.
Since then she’s been saddled with this big, rambling house, and all the care and demands that such a place puts on her stooped shoulders. Stripped of her moral and emotional support, and her lifetime helper, she was consumed by the house and its endless repairs.
The kids have been great. From the beginning they’ve assisted, from hiring my lawn guy to trim the huge, stately trees that are a hallmark of this block to helping her make some final decisions about where to land.
In this regard, Emma has effectively hit the jackpot.
This past summer, while I was away in Canada, one daughter came across a place north of here that was about to open. They catered to elders, and they needed an activities director. One thing led to another, and Emma had a place. Her daughter has a job, right on site. Perfect.
There are few more ideal situations, in addition to the fact that this place is near her family up north, which means they can avoid the awful traffic. She will see them more often, because, as she said, they’re great kids.
I dragged Emma out of her bedroom where she was hiding from the estate sale. We haven’t talked a lot, but I’ve been very aware of her situation. She was happy for a familiar face, not another stranger digging around for more bargains in what was once her castle, her Safe Place. Now the wind blew leaves into the empty kitchen from the spacious back yard, which, much like mine, is lined with shade trees. The evening chill had begun to touch the living room as the trickle of folks and curious neighbors dwindled.
Her eyes were tired, but she was committed. “It’s time,” she said. “The house is too much.” It’s also an echo chamber for a marriage of 61 years. Every room is a whisper or a shout, just as every item that still sits for sale on the many tables bears witness to a long life. Trinkets gathered from travels, gifts given, received and cherished.
Emma told me about her new place. The exercise room, the food, the activities. Most of all, her daughter would be there. Her eyes lit up. That would make it a Safe Place, and we both knew it. I am delighted for her.
Most of us don’t get that special sauce of a family member who could run point, keep an eye out, and stay close once we’ve given up the comfort of a familiar place. We should all be so lucky. My other neighbor, whose husband died suddenly some years ago, had to do the same thing. It was a harder experience. That Asshole Jerry moved in and the neighborhood changed for all of us. With Emma moving, then me, well.
The leaves twirled like fairies.
Life goes on. Things die, are born. Neither of us would be here next fall to see these trees, these breezes. Emma’s moving just in time for Thanksgiving. She won’t have to suffer through another holiday season with sixty years’ of dinners and gifts and laughter and presents following her around the place like an aging dog.
As she spoke, I considered. She knows I’m moving; she’s seen the boxes and the packing and the preparations. We both know how hard it is to let go of the familiar. But Emma has lost more, the history of her long marriage. She now needs to fill that chasm with friends and activity. The move is right, albeit scary.
My options are different. As Emma’s life is slowing down, mine is speeding up. But in perhaps twenty or so years, I may well be faced with the same imminent decisions. Twenty years aren’t that much. After all, I could see the look on Emma’s face as we watched the leaves. It mirrored mine.
My god. Sixty-one years. Where on earth did it all go? How did I get here so fast?
I don’t have family or kids. My move is going to be motivated by the need, in part, to get to a place, make friends and establish my own network long before I really need it. I’ve got time, Emma doesn’t. But Emma has family, and I don’t. I have to make one. I can, but it takes time and commitment.
The phone rang. It’s on the wall, and has a long curled cord. Of course it does. It was Meg, her best friend. Emma has a dinner date tonight. Women like us need dinner dates; Emma perhaps more than I do.
Emma is in good and loving hands. That’s not always the case for elders. We all need advocates and friends and family who really do look out for us, as Emma’s kids do for her. For as she and I watched, with pleasure, the leaves trace a do-si-do on my driveway and across her lawn, we were also watching the passage of time in both our lives.
This is our last fall here. Forever.
For me the words fall with a terrible finality. I will leave behind fifty years, my entire adult life, in Denver. I am off to parts unknown.
Emma is leaving behind 61 years of memories, to parts better known, peopled with family and the comfort of familiar faces.
Two aging women, facing an uncertain future.
The leaves lifted, waved, and whisked down the street, as quickly as all the years of our long lives.