Give me a staff of honour for mine age

It’s interesting how we can find ourselves immersed in Time, isn’t it? We ride in it as if we were on a bus, looking out of the windows at the world going by. We are all on a journey I suppose, but some of us at different speeds and from different locations. Well, at least it seems that way sometimes.

I have younger friends, naturally, but most of them are around my age, with similar sensibilities, similar worries, and similar prospects. Until I retired I was surrounded by a different world, however. Old was a word applied to others -the same as child, or them– the people that stood out from us. And in those halcyon days, I don’t remember having to classify myself in terms like that. Of course, I recognize that I have all along been a member of a majority group, and, for some reason, a privileged gender, so thoughts of difference did not come easily to my mind.

Especially since some of them are liminal; some of them avoid outright trespass by seeming to pay lip service only to the correct side of the road. I have  friend who prides herself on caring for her ageing mother, for example.

“It’s what I owe her for all those years she cared for me,” she told me one evening as she sat with me and her husband having coffee after dinner; her mother was asleep upstairs. “She forgets things now, though, and I have a difficult time making sure she actually takes her medications correctly each day.” She had a quiet sip of coffee as she thought about it. “Sometimes she even gets my name wrong, you know…”

“How does that make you feel?” I asked, wondering what I would think if that happened to me.

“Oh… well, she’s old, you know. She’s in her nineties and you have to expect things like that from them.”

I couldn’t help but notice her use of the them word; it seemed so… I don’t know – so othering, maybe. And if she did get sick and die, I’m sure my friend would tell me that although she felt devastated by the loss, her mother was old and that, after all, you had to expect that they would die sometime... But that anyway, she’d had a good life…

Of course, strictly speaking, my friend would have been right: old people –all people- have to die some time, and yes, depending on who is doing the final analysis, many of us have had a fairly good life, for sure. And yet, in this context, it seems more of a platitude, a cliché, than a statement of fact to which the deceased person might have objected had they been canvassed prior to their death.

And in a pandemic which seems to afflict the elderly, or those with underlying disease conditions, more seriously, the temptation is often to consider their deaths as understandable or, more congenially, as people who were not long for this earth anyway. True, perhaps, but a cruel way to look at people who are, by no fault of their own, them -or, at the very least, not us.

And, now that I think about how I started this essay, it’s interesting how my newfound membership in the retired, ageing group has allowed me to gravitate to the bus analogy so easily, isn’t it? And yet, even that is surface only; nothing is as it seems at first.

I like to take the bus nowadays; I’m not usually in a hurry, and a bus avoids the need to find a parking spot, or worry about traffic congestion in the middle of the city. They’ve even made it inexpensive for seniors, and the front of the bus has space for mobility vehicles and signs that clearly demarcate which seats are reserved for older folks.

So, although I suppose that as a soon-to-be octogenarian I qualify for a seat in the front despite my lack of mobility issues, and despite my protestations that I don’t look a day over sixty each morning in front of the mirror, my beard is white, even if my hair is not. This leaves me in the embarrassing position of having to defend my elder rights should I happen to find myself in need of a seat on a busy bus -especially in a pandemic where my mask covers most of my beard.

I realize these are trifling concerns in a time of more pressing issues, so I have seldom tried to assert the privilege of my years, but one day, having shopped at several stores in the city, and therefore carrying several heavy bags, I sought refuge in the senior seats rather than trying to squeeze my bags along the narrow aisle in search of room further back. I saw no fingers wagging at me from the seated passengers, and heard no whispers of protest from the younger crowd, so I sat back and closed my eyes to rest.

But, even with my eyes closed, I could feel another set of eyes staring at me. I risked a glance and noticed a woman sitting at the edge of the restricted section dividing her attention between her little daughter, and my face -or, rather, what she could see of it above my mask.

When she noticed I was watching her, she mumbled something in my direction from behind her mask, but I couldn’t make out what she was trying to tell me. She then pointed to the sign which announced that the space was only for seniors. She looked angry, and mumbled louder, as if that would finally untangle her masked words. Then she repeated the mumble to her daughter.

The little girl, who was only around four or five years old looked surprised and said something equally unintelligible back to her mother, who only shook her head. Finally, the little girl shrugged and took off her little mask so it hung from one ear. “My mommy says you’re not supposed to sit in those seats, ‘cause they’re just for people with canes or wheel-cars.” Then she put the mask back over her nose and mouth and the two of them mumbled at each other again.

Suddenly though, after chastising her mother with her eyes, the little girl dropped her mask as before and folded her arms across her chest in defiance, “I told mommy you looked tired, and anyway you couldn’t use a cane because of all of those parcels…” She put the mask back on for a moment at the insistence of her mother, but then shook her head and took it off again. “Besides, I like old people; and you kinda look like my grampa…”

I could see that her mother was blushing behind her mask as she reached over and put the daughter’s mask back in place. Then she stood up and pulled the cord for the bus to stop. But as they started down the aisle to leave, the daughter looked at me as they passed, and this time I could hear what she said from behind her mask. “Don’t worry,” she mumbled. “I’ll talk to mommy about it.”

There’s still hope for the world, I thought as she waved at me from the door.

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