“I’m fascinated with getting old. Aging. Aging up. Some people think old is a bad word and I think it’s a perfectly serviceable word and old is a valuable thing, not a liability. Old is wisdom and understanding, old is the ability to mend a broken heart.”
I drive in my old VW Westfalia van to see my old dad at his old retirement center.
On the way, I pass an old woman walking her old dog. They move slowly down the hill toward a busy intersection. I wonder if they will make it across the street in time. She wears an old baseball cap that pushes her old gray hair out in a fan around her face. She walks, contentedly, no hurry, her dog matching her stride. The two of them in sync in a way that tells me they’ve been together a long time.
Maybe she is headed home to a husband waiting in a recliner for her to come back and make the breakfast. More likely, he died some years ago and she walks the dog two or three times a day alone. And the dog gets her out of the house. And maybe that dog has her heart and watches over her. Any dog would be a joy, but some dogs, they take your heart away and keep it and you follow them around looking for it.
I know where I’m going to live when I’m old. The place my dad lives lets dogs be part of the community. I’ve seen the little old ladies walking their dogs and I’ve sighed, because that’s my dream of a heavenly future, a place where the dogs can come too.
Now that I think of it, there was something familiar about that old lady and her old dog this morning. I’ve passed her in the neighborhood, only she didn’t have a dog with her then. She paused to pet my dog and we spoke, nothing lengthy, but we shared an understanding that this life is good and it’s best spent with a dog at one’s side. I wonder if that’s her. I’m almost sure it is.
My dog, the one the old lady admired, is part shepherd. If you’ve ever been in a shepherd’s life, well, you know what I mean. They are terribly interested in each thing you do. They watch, they supervise, they instruct you on how it should be done and when and how much, and would you please set that egg down in my bowl.
It made me happy watching that old women walk down the street slowly, she and her dog, both slowly. He was tall, with his huge old lab head and jowls hanging down and ears flopping when he walked, and he had a jaunty walk for an old boy. He was tall enough that the old woman could rest her hand on his back. She held the leash loosely and they both watched the ground in front of them, carefully taking each step at a nice and steady pace.
I’m fascinated with getting old. Aging. Aging up. Some people think old is a bad word and I think it’s a perfectly serviceable word and old is a valuable thing, not a liability. Old is wisdom and understanding, old is the ability to mend a broken heart. Old is letting go of the things one has carried for fifty years and more. Finally, old has not enough energy to carry all the things we want to carry and so we must choose, and weed out the chaff and keep the love and the connections.
I watch my father. He’s old. Even older now after his stroke. And the 94-year-old across the dining room, still flirting and the men fawn and fuss over her. Life and living, it is an incredible thing.
And I want the word old to mean something pristine and solid. Old things, valuable. The old house next door to me was gutted. You could hear them ripping and tearing the two by fours out to change the floor plan. There was no effort to salvage the boards, those old growth Douglas fir two by fours. The kind with no knots and clear grain. The finest timber one can find, anywhere in the land, lumber as pure as the day the 100-foot tree was felled.
The builder ordered a dumpster and they delivered an enormous box and the workers tossed the pristine, clear-grained, knot-free timbers inside the box. They drove it to the dump, those boards that had been ripped, mangled, and shredded. They hauled off to the dump the pieces torn and hacked by chisels and saws. My heart broke to smell that old lumber while they were tearing and sawing it, as if the wood were being atomized so it could float away on the wind instead of to the landfill. My heart broke the same way my heart breaks when I see the old people where my dad lives, trying valiantly to make a life after being ripped from their homes.
Tears in my eyes and tears all over my voice. They sent the old two by fours to the landfill. Its happening all over my city, my supposedly progressive city. Superficial liberal a friend said at a meeting the other night. Yes, if we’re treating timber, old ladies, and old men as disposable, then yes, superficial liberal fits.
I parked in the lot outside my father’s residential care. Today, we’ll have coffee together and do the chores he has saved up for me. One day, he’ll carve a handle for a cane he made years ago, only now he has to relearn how to use the tools and how to work one-handed.
When I trimmed his fingernails the other day, I noticed his skin is getting dry and thin and the wrinkles are setting in deeper still. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t been drinking as much water as he used to when he was on his water kick, but he still drinks more than his peers who have themselves on water restrictions so they don’t have to pee as often.
Old. Old, old, old. I want old. I want wise. I want enough time to finish the healing of my heart. Heal now and you’ve changed the past. I don’t know how that works, but I know it does, somehow, in a way I can’t explain. Except that this present moment will be someone’s past, so maybe that’s how it all fits together.
On the way, I pass an old woman walking her old dog.
Kim Cottrell is a Feldenkrais® practitioner, educator, and former speech pathologist. Kim blogs at ahealthystepmother.com and contributes regularly to Walk About Magazine.