One should be so old! There are many books on death and the afterlife, but most people, I think, are not afraid of the passage per se. It is the old age that precedes it, one’s seeming uselessness, helplessness and irrelevance that are frightening. Life is beautiful, and the realization that one is getting weaker by the year is tinged with sadness.
Society does not support old age. The fixation is on youth— note the frenzy for anti-wrinkle creams, hair dyes, dieting, exercising madly in order to stay young. Just glance at the classified ads, said my friend Belai Gruenberg; the cut-off point for an editorial job, or for most jobs for that matter, is 38 years old.
We invalidate our senior citizens. At 38, we declare them unemployable, and, therefore, useless, a burden to society. What a waste of experience and wisdom!
When one is feeling woozy, it doesn’t help when a well-meaning soul says, “Wala lang yan!” You’ll live to a ripe old age like his gramps (or his grams) who, at 88, was still driving a car, or sitting behind a cash register or digging camote in the mountain. Or about some super-being who smoked and drank and ate red meat fearlessly until he reached a hundred.
You see, I’m jealous because I fell from my exercise cot a week ago. It was the same cheap folding bed with aluminum pipe legs and plaited plastic top on which I’d been doing my floor exercises for two years. It usually took me two tries to get up but this time, a third. The cot slid off from under me and flipped over, leaving me flat on the sala floor at 12 p.m. I felt a shooting pain in my spine. I called but nobody could hear me. I managed to hobble back to my bedroom, but oh, my sprained back!
I realized that no matter how careful one is, an accident can come from nowhere. I walk like a turtle. I’ve never slipped on a soapy floor or dived from the stairs. I use a cane to navigate and hold on to my driver’s arm.
Lest you end up with a slipped disc, may I remind you, as I am reminded all the time, don’t pick up anything that falls to the floor. (Not your bifocals, or your false teeth or your glass eye.) Don’t stumble on the cat, the corner of the carpet or a rubber slipper. One old lady stumbled on her own feet and died.
Old people receive endless advice. Sit in the sun to activate your vitamin D. Don’t sit in the sun, you’ll get melanoma and wrinkle like a raisin. Drink 10 to 12 glasses of water with cider vinegar and lemon a day. Don’t or you’ll just run to the bathroom every half hour. Take a tablespoon of VCO daily to avoid Alzheimer’s and dementia. Make it three. Walk daily to strengthen weak bones.
Most old people have osteoporosis, don’t move around too much lest your bones crumble under you. Be sure to get yearly antiflu, dengue and typhoid shots. Don’t have any kind of injection, especially steroids, because they’re all bad. Don’t drink water from the tap, don’t take sugar substitutes. Coke, French fries and hot dogs, also bad.
Too many old people end up in wheelchairs with hip or knee replacements and all their cataracts removed, but nothing to see in the future. When you ask how they are, one of them says, “I don’t know when I wake up in the morning whether I should be grateful I’m alive or ask why I’m still around.” Another typical answer is “O eto, naghihintay na lang mamatay.”
We all pray for a swift death. I used to pride myself in getting passing marks in my yearly comprehensive blood exam—low bad cholesterol, high good cholesterol, low creatinine, passing blood sugar—until I began to wonder. If I’m so healthy, how will I die? I realized that a swift death could include being run over, drowning in a flood, getting electrocuted and being shot by a maniac. Which is the least painful? Now I just ask for a moderate death.
Yes, old age is full of fears. An old woman who has none either escaped a World War II massacre or is catatonic. One fear in my stash is that my 52-year-old house will go ahead of me because I won’t have enough to keep repairing its infirmities. I can feel the floor boards sag when a maid walks on it. They are infested, not with exterminable termites, but with deathless, chomping wood borers. Half of the joists and the planks of my bedroom have been replaced. I’ve decided to do no more. It’s now a race on who will go first, the house or I.
It is the same with other things—the renewal of the insurance (will the house burn in the short years I’ve left?); changing the 30-year-old frayed wall-to-wall carpet or let my kids (who inherit the house); taking prescribed sleeping pills (won’t I become a druggie?).
Life’s cycle is ending. An infant begins life bald and toothless, wearing a diaper around his loins. So too is the old man bald and toothless, lying in bed in his final years. The baby’s initial diet is milk and eventually cereal and other soft foods. The old man’s solid diet declines to soft foods and then to liquids.
The toddler takes his first steps with the help of a walker, as does the aging person. The toddler falls and gets up again. The crone falls and possibly never gets up again. The baby descends through the birth canal and is born to the light of the world. The old man goes through the dark tunnel of death to emerge into the light of another dimension. We live and we die and we live again.