“Sure, he must be approaching 60”.
“Be careful what you say, now, I’m 50 this year”.
“Well, you don’t look it”.
“Ah sure, flattery will get you everywhere”.
But it’s not about numbers, is it?
Mary will be dead twelve years this year. She was one of the best people I will ever have the good fortune to meet. She lived alone in the farmhouse in which she had lived since her marriage in 1925. On her 92nd birthday she was given a new greenhouse as a birthday present, ‘I don’t know what I’ll do when I get old’, she said.
I remember stifling laughter at Mary’s comment, if 92 wasn’t old, then what was? When she died in 1998, she was a young 95.
As the years have passed, I have increasingly understood what Mary meant. ‘Old’ was not about chronology, it was about independence and dignity, and the faculty to think and act for oneself. One can be old at an early age and young at a late age.
Thoughts of ageing brought memories of a lady whose affairs I handled. Visiting her during her final illness, I saw a trim, well-groomed upright lady sitting on a bed and chatting to those around, ‘Ah! There she is’, I thought. But, of course, it wasn’t. That’s how she would have looked six or seven years previously, a lady who spent much of her time walking and who loved nothing more than fresh air.
She had been in nursing care for more than five years, increasingly confused, bedbound, and developing cancer. I hadn’t found her on the ward so had to ask the nurse who seemed to be the solitary member of staff for the whole ward, where she was. She had been transferred to a private room, on top of everything else, she had picked up one of the hospital bugs in which the NHS seems to specialize.
The person I saw was unrecognizable from the person she had been. Steroids and successive illnesses had changed her appearance beyond any resemblance of her former self. I had tried to make conversation and she had rambled through a few sentences before falling back to sleep.
An officious nurse had come in and said would I make sure I washed my hands before I left the room, at no point as she went around the ward, did I seen her take any such elementary procedures. Tempted to say that people seemed in more danger in hospital than out of it, I had bitten my tongue- she had my name and address and would have judged it a political comment from someone coming up from Dublin.
The visit had been mostly pointless, I don’t think the relative even knew I had been there and the nurse had known nothing about her state of health, other than that I should make sure I had washed my hands.
I’m glad Mary never got old, I would wish such a fate on no-one. Being 50, or any other age, will be no more than a number if I can live my years as Mary did.