A Little Respect Please
by Abigail Thomas
It’s five in the morning. I’m sitting with the dogs, drinking coffee, listening to the weather. Snow out there. “Wind chill warnings for today and tomorrow,” says the reporter, “Most at risk, children and the elderly.” The word “elderly” always conjures up someone thin, frail, someone I might help across a busy street. Someone else. A moment passes before I realize, with a jolt, that I’m elderly. I don’t feel elderly. I don’t feel like a woman in her late seventies, except when I turn over in bed, or get up from a sitting position too fast. I feel like me, only more so.
The word I hate is “seniors.” I was a senior once, but it was 55 years ago, and I graduated. The label sounds condescending, all of us lumped together with lots of discounts and no identities, more like a marketing tool than a bunch of individuals. Given my druthers, I would rather be referred to as an “elder”. Elder brings with it the suggestion, no, the near certainty of hard-won wisdom. There are cultures who revere their elders but ours is not one of them. We seem to do everything to deny, even reverse aging, and death? Death should remain out of sight.
I don’t mind “old.” I’ve been around long enough to call a spade a spade. At 77, a little overweight, plopped in a chair, I have never been so comfortable in my body. I like this age. I choose my clothes for color and texture. No more tight sweaters and short skirts. No more sucking my stomach in when I go out. I never look in a three-way mirror. I never ask questions like, “Do these earrings make me look fat?” I’m no longer interested in whether anyone is looking back at me, nobody is. I can look wherever I want. I get to see what (or who) catches my eye. I get to stare. I have left my self-conscious self in the road behind.
A week ago I caught sight of myself in a good light, seeing far too much rouge, clunky bits of eyeliner, and lipstick elsewhere than my mouth. I reminded myself of my mother, whose cheeks got pinker and shinier with every passing year. I attributed this to her failing eyesight and yesterday I bought myself a magnifying mirror, so as to never leave the house again looking like an old lady clown. I washed my face and took a look. It was like traveling to another country. An unfamiliar but interesting topography that turned out to be my face. I’ve done a lot of laughing, and it shows. I’ve done a lot of everything else, and it shows. I decided to put my makeup away. It took me years to become this person, why not present myself as I am?
I hate words that try to sweeten death, or turn it into a Hallmark Greeting Card. Death is a certainty, death is a fact of life.
I was reminded the other day of having less of life ahead, than rolled up behind me when Facebook sent me this message: “What will happen to my Facebook account if I pass away?” Good grief. Who cares? My first quarrel was with the word “if.” It’s “when,” not if. I’m going to die, you’re going to die, we all die. My second complaint was with the euphemism, “pass away.” I hate words that try to sweeten death, or turn it into a Hallmark Greeting Card. Death is a certainty, death is a fact of life. I can’t stand, “he passed.” I loathe “gone to a better place.” I doubt very much that “God wanted another angel.” Now look at the simple grace of, “She is dying,” or, “He died.” Dying is the body’s last act. Let’s give the body credit.
My best friend gave me an urn for my 77th birthday last year. It is the color of a candied apple, the black lid has two birds perched on it. It’s lovely. When I opened it, he told me what it was for (we like to joke about which one of us will go first) and that the saleslady had assured him my ashes would fit nicely. Then I told him of a firm that sells wooden coffins if you want to make friends with death before death arrives. They suggest using it as a coffee table. Good to have at a party should conversation flag. I admit to a shiver now and then when the reality of death, my own, wakes me in the middle of the night. I comfort myself by remembering those of my friends who have already died. I figure if they can do it, so can I.
Mortality makes everything count. Mortality makes life precious.
Besides, who wants to live forever? What if this interesting painful hilarious existence became same old, same old? What if even surprises became ho-hum? You’d just sit and drum your fingers throughout eternity. Mortality makes everything count. Mortality makes life precious. And as I’ve pointed out more than once, mortal rhymes with portal, which has an optimistic ring.
There are a lot of us elderly folk. We’re all different. Most of us have been through several kinds of hell and survived. Don’t smile at us as if we’re cute. Definitely do not pat our hands or call us “dear”. Take a moment. Look into our eyes. We are your elders and possibly your betters. We know more than you do. A little respect please.
Photo by Annie Scholl
About the writer
Abigail Thomas has four children and twelve grandchildren. She was asked to leave Bryn Mawr in her freshman year because she was pregnant. She never looked back. She has published three works of fiction, Getting Over Tom; An Actual Life; and Herbs Pajamas. Her memoirs include Safekeping; A Three Dog Life; and What Comes Next and How to Like It. She lives in Woodstock NY with her three dogs.
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