Hope I Die Before I Get Old
Apparently Aunt Karol died toward the end of New Year’s Eve, though I didn’t hear for at least ten days and even then my big brother didn’t know how to spell her name.
It wasn’t a surprise, for we knew she was in hospice, and she was 95, about the average lifespan for her side of the family. Karol was youngest of thirteen (born in ten years with one set of twins), and her first husband – so family lore has it — passed along a venereal disease which kept her from bearing children. Maybe that’s why there were no services. Nobody left to go.
She probably didn’t know that I’d have booked the flight, or thought hard about it.
That’s only part of why I’m writing this.
We grew up in the unfeeling grasp of youth culture, the Who song from which my title is swiped echoing roundly through the teenage years. But my mom’s people, they live to ripe old age, long as they steer clear of tobacco and saturated fats, and so I never bought that one.
This scares mom, who just turned 80, and some years back decided there would be no services when her time came.
Me, I always had it figured that I’d live to be over 100. I don’t tend to have an abiding faith in the afterlife, so that’s part of it. And the genetics may and may not work in my favor. Mostly I trusted to the advances in medicine, and my own stubbornness. (More family lore: I am said to have been the youngest child to have survived the surgery I had at six weeks, and so I live, too, with the knowledge that had I been born in any other time or place, mine would have been a short run here.)
Besides, the alternative which youth culture offered up — live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse — was never all that appealing, in small part because I never had the raffish good looks to pull it off.
They used to ask about retirement plans, the path I went down, and for years I had a nice reply: society has been a burden on me, and so I shall be a burden on it in my old age. This is the price one pays for believing in one’s talents wholeheartedly, or, perhaps in my case, with three-quarters of a heart and one eye constantly wandering.
Mom is scared because she might outlive her savings. Her house was paid for years ago, and would fetch a nice price. She’s never owned a television, nor a computer, and only calls long distance when something truly awful has happened. Twice, that I remember. She eats frugally, and allows joy into her life only through unguarded cracks, but I think for all of that she has found a balance which passeth for peace.
Aunt Karol was nothing like that. She had been the bootlegger’s good luck charm, riding all around and having a good time that I never had wit to ask her about, because we met only at funerals. My grandfather’s. I was, what? Four? Karol’s second husband was a lifetime Marine, a musician. His last name was Parrot, and I never knew his proper first name, but he had the grace to introduce himself as Polly. I remember him only from that one day, 46 years ago, and sure as I’m sitting here he was a kind man, a good man, and I wish I’d known him better.
We met again when my aunt died, having smoked too many cigarettes and eaten too much butter and ignored every heart attack she had until she couldn’t anymore, and then it was too late. My daughter is named after her, a constant memory of my aunt’s glorious and infectious laugh. Karol came and sat at the table and ate the good ham, the one we kept from the shirttail relatives. She must have been 60 then, and she was still a striking woman. Every afternoon about four, when we sat down for a complicated two-handed, two-deck solitaire game I haven’t played since, she would go to the kitchen, find a stool, and grasp firmly the neck of a bottle of Jim Beam. She drank from an ice tea glass, and I never quite got the proportions, nor was I officially of drinking age. By the second glass, when the cards ran against her, she took to saying “Damn the damn dam” under her breath, and sometimes her words fuddled just a trace. Her eyes twinkling.
She did not see well the last time we met, a decade back. I lived briefly a couple hours from her apartment in Palm Desert, and visited just that once. Sometimes we sent her a card, more often when we named our daughter for her niece, and with a large photograph of the little one which she always told mom she could still see.
I used to want to follow that line of the family, to live to be a hundred. Given that I will be eligible for Social Security (in theory) the year our daughter should be off to college I am less certain how it plays out.
My health’s good, and I’m tolerably fit. But the career I nurtured all those years, which finally gave me a taste of middle class life, it’s in a field which no longer really exists. I have a job, and some freelance work, and my wife works, and we do fine, but the job I have pays about a third of what I used to make, and I tend to think of each freelance gig as an unexpected bonus, not a sustainable yield.
Karol had Social Security, and Polly’s military benefits, and Medicare, and all that. If I have the details of those programs wrong, no matter. She had a safety net, and best I can tell it took pretty good care of her. She was on her own, cooking for herself, right up until they took her to hospice. Can’t ask for more than that.
I have worked as hard as I am able, at work which seemed worth doing (not counting the summer spent selling Fuller Brush door to door, and at least I got a short story out of that; not that it was any good), since I was 16 years old. We are frugal with money, grow much of our own food. Take care of ourselves.
And yet I am still as I was twenty years ago, as most of us are, just one disaster removed from some relative’s basement, or a shelter. One major medical problem, a bad car wreck, something. Dear god, look at Haiti.
They are squabbling in Washington D.C. about health care and whatever else, and I can work up no enthusiasm for any of their proposals. They’re not about me, they’re not about most of us. Everything on the table benefits some kind of big business, they’re just arguing about who eats more. Maybe they can nibble something together in all those 1900 pages that makes things better for some people. Maybe.
For most of us, nothing’s going to change. The corporations are going to get bigger, and the Supreme Court just decided corporations could spend as much as they want on elections. Great. That’ll level the playing field. That’s what the founders intended when they wrote the First Amendment.
No, plenty’s going to change. We’re going to quibble about global warming until something far worse than Katrina happens, simply because the entrenched industrial interests refuse to jeopardize their immediate bottom lines. Just like tobacco did.
And energy costs are going to rise. We’re going to run out of cheap petroleum, if we haven’t already. And we lack the will to spend the money to win the coming energy war. Not a war with guns, but a war with brains and technology, with common sense and conservation.
I like the idea of living to be 100, really I do. It has a nice ring to it, and I have enjoyed my first 50 years (plus or minus my time on the school bus in grade school, and a couple years in my twenties, but at least I didn’t get married then).
But I understand why the prospect scares mom, and it’s not simply that one might outlive friends and relatives and have nobody to invite to the wake, nobody to play double-handed solitaire with and send to the kitchen for a highball and one more piece of honey-baked ham.
I will miss Aunt Karol. I also miss the world I thought we all shared, I mourn the slow loss of innocence that comes with the dawning realization that democracy is just another rigged game. That it doesn’t matter what we want and believe in, unless we happen to be the ones writing the checks.
Which, I reckon, means my retirement plan is back to what it once was: I shall become a burden on society. Or, at least, a thorn in its side. Hell, I’ve got another 50 years, give or take.