Living out one’s twilight years. It’s such a lovely turn of phrase for a time that can be so benignly cruel.
Visiting my Gram at the assisted-living place in Kansas City last week, seeing the collection of people who are well-cared-for, yet so alone in ways no one can relieve, the questions swirled.
Do the people here want to be here — is this the life any of them would have agreed to if they could have seen into their future? Would anyone?
It’s living; it’s existing. But is it a life?
Sitting with my Gram, watching every movement, evaluating every gaze, her every sigh for proof that she’s in there somewhere, I know what her answer would be. A resounding no. She would have no patience for it. None of it.
This is what happens when twilight lingers and you’re left in the place of not-quite-light-but-not-quite-dark, a surviving place where nothing is truly visible but if you focus hard enough, you can make out familiar shapes until you blink.
During what I sometimes think of as better times, Gram made no bones about her discontent. Nothing about getting old has been easy. She felt the accumulating losses deeply. Gram’s patented sideways look and eye roll made her opinion of matters crystal clear. “Accidentally” running over people’s feet in her wheelchair as she paddled around emphasized the point.
But time has left her eroded. The indignities of needing help with absolutely everything are painful for a woman used to issuing commands. She surfaces less frequently now, and sinks deeper.
Her ability to cut was unparalleled, and her observations, never kept to herself, could hurt. She wondered aloud to my 13-year-old self where my baby fat came from (“I don’t know, Gram, but we’re related, so maybe I got it from you”) and never rushed in with praise for strangers or family.
She could also be kind, funny and hilariously practical. During a visit to my family when I was in high school, Gram appeared at the top of the stairs in her housecoat and slippers with maxi-pads in her hair.
“I forgot my curlers so I used these,” she announced, and whisked into the bathroom with singular aplomb.
Somewhere along the way we became friends. She decided we could engage, that my contradiction of her was a challenge, not an affront. We laughed, a lot.
The absurdity of institutionalized infirmity was sharper this visit without Gram’s sidelong glance to turn it into humor.
At lunch she watched the man in the crisply ironed orange gingham shirt at their table as he repeated “Bacon and eggs! Orange juice!” in a voice that sounded unnervingly like actor Peter Boyle.
The tiny woman across the table ate her hot dog and bun slathered in ketchup with the help of a caregiver who smiled and said, “You sure enjoy a hot dog, don’t you?” The tiny woman smiled and nodded.
I wish I knew who these people had been, although even asking that question seems unkind. We are all who we are in the moment, but it’s hard not to wonder.
The bright lady with a happy look on her face narrated her life to the table and paused occasionally to include anyone willing to answer.
“Oh, hello! How are you? What’s new?”
“I don’t know.” The man responded without looking at her, nor she at him.
A few minutes later, she picked up the thread.
“Where did you say you are from? Where are you living now?”
“Oh, I’ve never been there. But I’ve heard a lot about it. I’ve heard it’s nice.”
I looked to Gram for her recognition of the incongruence of the conversation, for the understanding that we’re all in Kansas City. I want for her to find the humor in the ridiculousness of it all. But she was somewhere else.
I wish I could be there with her, to make it better, to soften the hardness, ease the path. But life, and its twilight, doesn’t afford that luxury.
In the end, on the way to the end, the only thing of meaning any of us has to offer is our love, our compassion, our laughter, our presence and the hope that those sparks of human connection cross through the growing static.
We also seek that comfort for ourselves — and for the hope that when it is our turn to leave, that there will be someone beside us to take notice, to remember who we were and honor who we are. Perhaps that’s an impossible request, made by someone being left behind.
As the time for goodbye comes closer, I go back to something Gram said several years ago. She couldn’t remember details any longer, so while I’d told her I was coming, she was surprised when I woke her from her nap.
She looked up at me.
“ ‘Hello’ is the best thing you can say to a person.”
And so we smiled.