August 1, 2009
It is immediately apparent upon entering that the home’s inhabitants are not there on their own volition. In order to exit, one must go through the two large locked glass doors and type a four digit code into a keypad kept just above the reach of someone bound to a wheelchair. After exiting the elevator and stepping out onto the second floor I was hit with the reality of old age. Wheelchairs were scattered throughout the floor that seemed more alive than their occupants. I couldn’t help but cringe as I saw countless contorted elderly frames draped over their wheelchairs. Their ageless eyes were the only things left on their bodies that they could still control. The eyes did what their bodies could not as they followed my every move across the floor. To my left was a “fitness” room with several weight lifting machines. Most of their users were unconscious while physical therapists tried in vain to awaken them from their comas. The only thought able to cut through my mental melancholy was the enormous amount of money wasted on the high-tech security coded doors.
Being young and naïve, I dismissed these atrophied ancients as having no families, money, or will to live. Surely no one with such resources would find themselves in this fragile state, temporarily stopping to rest on their way across the River Styx. Finally I arrived at my old friend’s room where he introduced me to his roommate Mac. The man was bound to a wheelchair and firmly grasped my hand and began to tell me about himself. Mac soon dispelled many of my preconceived notions as he sat with perfect posture while displaying great eloquence. Mac was ninety years old, tall and lean, a Cornell graduate, and had a successful career as a chemical engineer. I jokingly told him that we could not be friends because he was too smart for me to which he replied “We can be friends, I used to be smart.” I laughed at first thinking he was joking, but the defeated look on his face made it evident that his mood was very much otherwise. My mood quickly changed as well, realizing that Mac was a smart, fit, and presumably wealthy man who wasn’t exempt from such a fate either.
My friend who I was to pick up was the only one who I had met that resided there temporarily and wasn’t doomed to meet his demise in such a depressing atmosphere. He handed me a pot full of flowers that his family had brought and instructed me to deliver them down the hall to a woman named Julia. She was delighted to see that chivalry wasn’t dead and brandished a brilliant smile. After countless visits, hers is the only one that I can claim to have seen. Then in her soft, sweet grandmotherly voice, she asked if I would push her wheelchair down to my friend’s room in order to thank him personally. The chair seemed to propel itself while effortlessly supporting the withered woman’s weight. While maneuvering her through the scattered wheelchairs of her catatonic co-habitants we made casual conversation. She told me briefly about her children and grandchildren which immediately dislodged yet another preconceived notion of mine. I commented on the pleasant aroma coming from the dining hall as we passed to which she replied “I used to be a marvelous cook.” Although I was unable to see her face the tone in which she spoke revealed the pain that I was not able to see. The sadness in her voice exactly matched the expression I had seen on Mac’s face. Their dejected use of the past tense in describing themselves will be forever humbling to me.
Although age wasn’t visible in Mac and Julia’s eyes, pain was evident and ever present in them. I had only talked to each one briefly but with both I told comical stories about family or friends that they laughed at and enjoyed. However, within seconds they would slowly stop their laughter and stare off far away and the pain was present once more. It seemed that every story or remark triggered some memory in their minds which left them longing for the past. Being young, I have never had to refer to the things that I feel define me in the past tense. They must have been afflicted with a lost sense of identity when coming to this realization which I can only presume to be unbearable. To look into the eyes of those plagued with this dissociative disease gave me a new respect for my youth and for the brevity of life.
Some prefer to die at the peak of their youth; for Achilles and Alexander to perish at the pinnacle of their youth in battle was their ideal demise; while others would rather live as long as possible. Ignorance had led me to believe that I would die at an old age with the energy and physical ability of a young man, and with the reason, knowledge, and wisdom of an old man. However, the two seem to be irrevocably in conflict with one another. It seems unavoidable that I too will be forced to refer to my abilities and things that I feel define me using the past tense. Therefore, so long as I am able to do the things that one day I will reflect upon and talk about in the past tense, I will perform them to the best of my ability. Once my youthful energy and physical abilities are gone, the only remedy is to stay young in spirit. Being young in age is not a necessary condition for the optimism that accompanies youth. This optimism can accompany even the oldest of souls. My old friend embodied this youthful spirit as he feebly arose from the wheelchair, entered the security code into the keypad, returned to the chair, waved goodbye to his doctor, and said “I’m going home to die in the arms of a blonde.”
Max Hiltner is a junior from Wadsworth, Ohio, majoring in History.