Rose stood in her tiny, cluttered living room, trying to remember why she was there.
“Go brush your teeth and find your glasses,” she said out loud, before following her own command: first to the bathroom to brush her teeth, then back to the living room to retrieve her trifocals from the large cherry coffee table that anchored the room. She had to laugh at herself, remembering how often her mother had done the same kind of thing as her memory began to fade. Another Senior Moment, she mused. It was a dreary, rainy day, and she had put off going out to the store for as long as she dared. It was already late in the afternoon, and she hated driving in the dark, especially in rain.
She pulled up the hood of her sweatshirt, zipped up her coat, put her purse crosswise over her shoulder, and headed out the front door to her car. As she started the engine, she reminded herself of what she needed from the store: stockings to wear to an upcoming, rare dress-up occasion, a drying mat for her dish drainer, and sodas. The list was too short to waste on a scrap of paper; surely, she could remember these three items.
Shaking her head, she said to the empty passenger seat, “Thanks, Mom. Now I know why you were always making lists and asking me to run you to the store. And why you couldn’t always go to just one store – because too often, you couldn’t find everything on your list in one place.”
But on this day, Rose hit the jackpot, finding all the items she wanted, plus a box of cereal on sale, at the CVS just a five-minute drive from her home.
In her mid-60s, she was a petite single woman with cropped wavy-natural hair, who’d retired from an office job five years ago to care for her mother. It had been nearly a year since her mother passed away. Rose had purchased her own home twenty five years earlier, in the same neighborhood she’d grown up in, anticipating that as the oldest child and only daughter, she’d be the one to take care of her folks in their old age. Sure enough, less than ten years into being a single homeowner, she’d had to help her mother take care of her father. She had enough “clout” on her job to telecommute twice a week, so she could take turns with her mother in getting her dad to his dialysis treatments.
Five years later, after her father died, she continued to telecommute to work, enabling her to look in on her mother who, though living independently in her own home, was also beginning to have health issues. On Rose’s 50th birthday, her mother had driven herself to the hospital, barely able to breathe. She was diagnosed with COPD, began a regimen of daily inhalers and breathing exercises, and eventually needed supplemental oxygen, a large and noisy tank with a hose that snaked into the bedroom for overnight use, and two portable tanks to use when she went out.
Remarkably, her mother never slowed down! At first, she was able to live completely on her own, doing housework and continuing to drive her car to go shopping, attend church, and get to doctor’s appointments. But eventually, other disorders, among them, osteoporosis and arthritis, took their toll. Her mother sold her car and relied more on her for transportation and help doing chores, especially those requiring her to go up and down stairs.
Several years later, when her mother was diagnosed with cancer, she used leave time twice a week to drive her to treatments. During her waiting-for-Mom time, she began to assess her own life. A longer commute over Maryland’s clogged sections of the I-95 corridor to a job she no longer enjoyed, and the uncertainty of outcome for her mother, led her to plot her escape into retirement. She told no one what she was doing until five months later, when everything was in place.
By the time she walked away from the company that she’d given half her adult life to, she felt free. Her mother’s cancer treatment had been successful, and she embraced her new role as companion, chauffeur, and caregiver for the woman who’d brought her into the world, tough-loved her, scolded her, and molded her into the woman she’d become: a self-reliant problem solver with a mind all her own. A mind that was usually at odds with her Mom’s.
Rose preferred to don rough-dry jeans and a tee-shirt (or a hoodie on cold days), while her Mom would carefully press slacks, a top, and even her jacket just to run to the grocery store. Even with her trusty shopping list, her Mom, tooling around the store on a riding cart, would traverse every aisle in the store, looking for bargain prices and checking her envelope overflowing with coupons. She, in contrast, was an in-and-out shopper, zeroing in on the items she wanted and only half considering the price. They argued over the fastest routes to wherever they were going. When her Mom called her suggestions illogical, she would roll her eyes and sigh, “Yes, ma’am.”
But after her mother had taken her last breath, she was thankful for everything: the arguments, slammed doors, tears, hugs, thank you’s. Everything. Especially the meticulous ways her Mom had prepared her for her inevitable death. When the time came, she knew where all the important papers were, who would need them, and what needed to be done.
Now an “orphan,” Rose went to visit her godmother at the retirement community she lived in.
She had met her godmother’s circle of friends on previous visits, usually in the company of her mother. This time, she was simply trying to carry on the tradition of visiting her elders. But on this day, her godmother all but called her an elder as she settled in beside her at the table for lunch. As the group of older but still-vibrant black women discussed upcoming doctor appointments and fighting the ever-growing accumulations of dust in their individual apartments, she felt strangely at home. Even if the idea of living in a monstrously large retirement complex where you never had to step outside if you didn’t want to, repelled her. She was still proud of the crowning achievement of her life – an achievement these ladies had already achieved and moved forward from – owning and taking care of a house. As the topic of conversation shifted, she laughed heartily along with her comrades at the notion of tucking spare cash down one’s bra instead of fumbling to put it in one’s pants pocket. And that was something all of them had seen their grandmothers do at one time or another.
Still, she couldn’t wait to drive away from this labyrinth of apartments, long-term medical units, gardens, parking lots, and skywalks connecting all the buildings, and go home.
A few days later, she joined a group of white female friends for dinner. Ironically, her mother had helped initiate these friendships as well, thanks to an event they’d attended together. This circle of friends was as important to her as her beloved black sisterhood because of their different, yet connected, life perspectives: though some of these women had also downsized to apartment life, they displayed a different kind of self-assurance; their focus remained outward, with a more open and deep well of support for her aspirations and dreams, helping her make a tangible difference in her community through service projects, activism, and leadership. While her black friends seemed to be about preserving their pasts – homes, marriages, families, achievements, and histories – these women were intent on using their past to bring about a better future in today’s world.
On another overcast Spring morning, Rose once more found herself driving to a neighborhood store. She was trying to beat the rain that was filling up black clouds overhead, when she got stuck behind a car double-parked on the narrow one-way street.
She tapped the steering wheel and fumed, craning to see whether anyone was in the car. Turning to peer out the side window, she recognized an Asian woman walking down the sidewalk. She remembered how the woman used to walk arm in arm with her husband nearly every day. Now, she walked alone.
As her gaze shifted slightly forward, her impatience with the stopped car immediately softened. Slowly and painfully, a portly, elderly white woman descended the steep steps of the house adjacent to the car backwards. As the woman reached the bottom step, she grabbed hold of the stone wall holding up her hilly front lawn with her left hand while stretching her right foot down toward the pavement. After steadying herself, the woman turned to face the car awaiting her; she leaned on her cane and stepped forward, inch by painful inch until she reached the passenger door. In the time it took the woman to open the door and disappear into the front seat, Rose wondered why the driver had not helped the woman down the stairs and into the car.
Then, she remembered: the feeling of being independent and getting around under one’s own power was the essence, not just of aging, but also, simply, of being alive.