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Fishman: When age calls your number 

There are at least four major groups of old people. The first make jokes, do crossword puzzles, walk with a cane and soldier on:

“We’re all in the same boat and it’s not a cruise ship.”

“Meet my new best friend: Arthur-itis (substitute Ben Gay).”

“Well, breakfast is over. Time to read the paper and see who died.”

They find one another quickly and hang together. They’ll complain about the food, about having to leave their homes, about giving up their cars, but they always end up saying, “So what are you gonna do?”

The second group is snarly, snappish:

“Where’s my bagel?”

“Oh, you want a bagel?”

“Sure I want a bagel. Whadda ya’ think? What kind of place is this?”

They kvetch. They sit alone. Or alienate the people who are seated with them. They complain to their children and tend to move to other places that are no better. They are miserable.

The third group is out to lunch with one of a dozen kinds of dementia. Half of this group looks good. They dress nicely, their nails are polished, their hair stylish. They’ll fool you until you try to return to a conversation you had a month ago and they don’t remember a thing.

From what I can see -- and I’ve been visiting my mother for three years in an assisted living “home” -- they’re not sad, they’re not ashamed, they’re not embarrassed. But they’re not there. They will eat their entree then sit there... asking for their entree.

The other half of the out-to-lunch group doesn’t look so good. Their socks -- and sometimes their shoes -- don’t match. They carry empty pocketbooks. They speak of nephews coming to pick them up, trains they have to catch, (dead) mothers they saw in the room the other night.

The fourth group is oblivious, gently inappropriate, in the moment and totally unconcerned that the temperature of the building is about 98 degrees, that the person scheduled to serve lunch in the dining room is an hour late, that their sweatshirts are stained or their phone never rings.

That would be my mother.

“Don’t you feel relieved?” she says one afternoon last weekend after a long period of silence, her eyes closed, her head turned towards the sun on an outdoor deck.

“About what?” I asked.

“You know, going out and coming back.”

“From Wendy’s?” I ask, trying to seek clarification.

No answer.

Or from the cemetery where we walked with my dog? Except she calls it a park, even after I say, “No, it’s a cemetery” and she says, “I wonder why more people don’t live here.”

Still, she remembers to hoard cookies for us to share when I visit. And with a devilish look in her eye because she knows I don’t like it, she’ll break hers in two and give half to my dog.

And at dinner after she tells me to eat slower (because she takes forever) and I make sure she notices how I am lifting my fork very slowly to put a piece of trout into my mouth, she’ll start to laugh so hard she’ll get tears in her eyes (while I worry she’ll choke on the carrot in her mouth).

Over Thanksgiving, her sister Joan -- once a beauty, queen of B’nai B’rith Youth Organization at age 18 and for the last three years firmly ensconced in the second half of group No. 3, classic Altzheimer’s -- died.

I find out when her son, my cousin, calls with a question about the availability of family plots. Joan and my uncle were going to be buried in South Florida but then, at Joan’s death, my uncle changed his mind.

It seems my immigrant grandfather, after being in this country some 25 years, bought eight plots in 1937.

“Nana and Papa are buried in two,” cousin Freddie reports. “Then there’s Aunt Mildred’s little baby in a third.”

“That would leave five,” he continues. “If your mother takes one, my mom and dad take two, there would be two left, one for you if you want it.”

He was asking my permission about something important but I couldn’t get beyond thinking about why my grandfather bought eight plots when he had five kids. What was he thinking?

And what was this about a baby of Aunt Mildred’s who died?

Was this the first I had heard of this or am I starting down the slippery slope of memory lane?

As we gathered to sit shiva and graze from trays of food, cousin Cathy said it was like the time we were kids when every Sunday we would go over to our grandparents’ house for brunch. And how after they died my Aunt Trudy pledged to keep the Sunday brunch thing alive.

Except we didn’t. Thirty years later we meet at funerals, we talk about burial plots, we joke about getting old.

And then we change the subject.

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Jane Fishman

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