When he was 80 and someone asked him how he was, the writer, Paul Mailer, would reply, somewhat testily, I imagine, "I’m 80 years old; how do you think I am?" I know how Mailer felt, maybe even more so as I’m closer to 90 than 80 myself. With old age, really old age, comes the aches and pains that you can’t escape and every day is a trial to get through. Lately, it was more than physical aches and pains that bothered me. I’d been feeling glum and irritable. My wife Sally had noticed it and that morning when we got up she asked me what was wrong. I thought I knew but I said, grouchily, I’m okay.
After the usual pill-taking and the usual breakfast, cereal with supposedly healthful fruit, I took the morning newspaper and retired to our enclosed patio, which on this May morning was a sun room. Our retirement community was in the Sacramento Valley and in May we usually had a preview of summer, with the spring’s rain and fog giving way to warm temperatures and the onset of allergies. I’d been thinking of going for a walk but as often happened it was also windy outside so I decided it was a good day to stay indoors.
I began to half-heartedly look through the paper, the usual stories about homelessness in our state’s capital of Sacramento, a protest march over something or other and a few proposed new taxes. But after a few minutes my mind wandered. What was weighing on me was that in the last two weeks I’d had to deal with two deaths. First, Andy, my friend and fellow tennis player, when I could still play tennis, from cancer, and then, my cousin Jake in New York, who was also my oldest and best friend, after a bad fall. The last time I’d talked to Andy, over the phone, he’d told me he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was deemed too old to have anything done about it. So much for the miracles of modern medicine. I was going to visit Andy at his home, he lived about half an hour away and, as I don’t like driving any more I’d take an Uber or Lyft, but before I could do anything he’d passed away. The cancer had no mercy. I’d called Jake mainly to talk about my feelings after Andy’s death but his wife Sophie answered and I immediately knew something was wrong. Jake had fallen and was in the hospital. A few days later he was gone. It was like getting a one-two punch that left me staggering around the ring.
After getting dressed I went into what we called my computer room, which also served as a storage room. After my retirement I’d become kind of a free-lance writer and I still did two columns for the monthly senior paper that went to our retirement community. One of the columns was “Favorite Restaurants” and the other was called “Observations.” In my younger days I’d scout around for restaurants in our area but now I relied on readers to e-mail me their recommendations. So far, for the next month, I had nothing. In “Observations” I wrote on whatever subjects I could think of that month. A recurring subject was old age and its tribulations and compensations, if any. I was always on the lookout for items about aging, which is why I knew about the Norman Mailer quote. I’d just read a review of a book called “Nearing Ninety” in the Wall Street Journal and I thought I’d incorporate some thoughts on that in my next “Observations.”
I re-read the item on “Nearing Ninety’ and pecked out a few sentences on my computer, but, that’s as far as I got. I was staring at the computer screen when Sally came into the room and said, Why don’t we go out for lunch? I said it was windy outside. She said, No, the wind had died down, something that rarely happened, and why didn’t we go someplace in The Fountains. The Fountains was a shopping area that was one of the few places in our area where you could stroll around outdoors. It contained a Whole Foods store, a variety of shops, mostly high-end, a lot of places to eat and of course the big fountain in its center. We hadn’t gone out in a while, Sally pointed out, which was true, and she said it might cheer me up. I didn’t know how true this was but I agreed. I hit Save on my computer and we made our preparations to leave, which, when you’re old, take a while.
The Fountains was crowded as it usually is on a nice day, but we managed to find a parking spot on the main street and walked, more like hobbled, over to the nearest restaurant for lunch. This happened to be Boudin’s, a place operated by the bakery that made San Francisco’s first sourdough bread. Their clam chowder was good as was my sandwich on the sourdough bread. While we ate we talked about the possibility of taking a short cruise in the fall, one we’d been going on last year but had to cancel because I had to have knee replacement surgery. I was doubtful but we agreed to think about it.
Afterward, we hobbled up the main street and Sally went into a couple of stores while I sat on a bench outside. Eventually, we ended up at The Fountain’s fountain. The benches around the fountain were filled with families and I was ready to go back to our car but just then one family got up and left and we went over as quickly as we could and sat down. We watched the fountain and the kids playing around and I noted a couple of young mothers in shorts with pretty nice legs. The sun was warm and I must have closed my eyes and dozed off because I felt something hit against my leg. I opened my eyes and looked down. It was a red rubber ball. I picked it up and then a pretty little girl appeared in front of me and asked if she could please have her ball. I handed it to her and she rewarded me with a smile before she ran back to her mother, one of the pretty ones in shorts, who also gave me a nice smile.
* * *
When we got home we checked our phone, no messages, and I got the mail, the usual requests for donations, some bills and a couple of magazines I’d long since stopped subscribing to but which kept on coming. Sally went into the living room to check for e-mails on her Pad and then to play her games. I went to the patio with the magazines. I leafed through them, but, as with the newspaper that morning, it was only half-heartedly and once again I was thinking about my friend Andy and my cousin Jake. What I remembered most about Andy was his saying before he’d received his diagnosis of cancer, that he felt tired and aching and couldn’t do anything, that just a year ago he’d been feeling fine and was even hiking and playing pickle ball. How had this happened?
As for Jake, I had a snap of him and myself when we were both three years old, taken on the beach at Coney Island in New York; I’d known him that long. As I’ve written, besides being my cousin he was my oldest and best friend. He was the one person I could talk to about anything. Last year when Sally was having her knee problems I’d called him quite a lot. Who’d I call now? Jake had a practice of calling me during intermissions of a play or when he was at some event he’d grown bored with and had left the room. He also always called on my birthday. He wouldn’t be doing that any more. What would I do without Jake?
After a while I stopped thinking and was just looking outside. From the patio I could see the houses backing onto ours, but I could also see the trees in our back yard and the sky above the houses, green and blue, the restful colors. I’d been spending more time on the patio lately, just looking. Somehow it cheered me to see the occasional bird and now I was suddenly aware of a hummingbird flitting around one of our shrubs. It hovered there for maybe half a minute, wings in a blur, then zipped away.
I went back to my computer room and to my “Observations.” Before continuing, I wanted to take a look at an “Observations” I’d written a year or so before, in which I’d cited an article by another writer, Roger Angell, written when he was 93. What had Angell written? “Here, in my tenth decade, I can testify that the downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news.” He then goes on to enumerate all of those persons, plus his dog, who’ve passed away and then writes: “The surprise for me is that the accruing weight of these departures doesn’t bury us, and that even the pain of an almost unbearable loss gives way quite quickly to something more distant but still stubbornly gleaming.” Rotten news. Yes, when you’re old you got a lot of that. I knew he’d written something else about losing people but hadn’t been sure what.. I wasn’t sure what he meant by the pain of loss giving way to something more distant and gleaming. I supposed it was something along the lines of time healing all wounds.
I went back to my current “Observations.” The writer of the book “Nearing Ninety and Other Comedies of Late Life, to give its full title, was a poet named Judith Viorst. As the title indicates, she evidently tried to see the comedy in old age and she was quoted as saying that humor is absolutely crucial in facing late life. She also said that when you realize your days are dwindling down you have to lean back and enjoy the ordinary pleasures of everyday life. Needless to say, at the moment I didn’t see much humor in being old. Enjoy ordinary pleasures? Sure, why not?
I more or less finished the “Observations,” not too satisfactorily. I went into our bedroom and as I usually did around five in the afternoon lay down on our bed and had my afternoon nap. When I woke up it was time for dinner.. Since we’d had lunch out, Sally just made us some eggs. She asked me if I was feeling any better. I said I felt okay. She said, It’s Andy and your cousin, isn’t it? Not much escaped Sally. We settled in to watch the evening’s television. The first show was a hospital one and the second one some kind of cops-and-robbers show. There were the usual heart stoppages, life-saving operations, sex scenes, chases, shootouts and more sex scenes. You could pass a couple of hours without thinking.
It’s my habit after getting into bed to review the events of the day. I was glad we’d had our little outing to The Fountains. I had a brief snapshot of the little girl whose ball I’d retrieved, giving me a bright smile. I also pictured her attractive mother’s smile. Well, you can’t blame an old geezer for being happy when a pretty woman smiled at him. I also remembered seeing that humming bird in our back yard, another bright moment. I knew that I’d eventually get over the one-two punches of Andy and Jake’s deaths. Tomorrow I’d go over my “Observations” again and I’d see what I could put together for “Favorite Restaurants.” I recalled something else from Roger Angell’s piece on aging. I couldn’t remember it exactly but the gist of it was that it helped to have someone beside you when you’d suffered a loss. I reached over and touched Sally.