Old age and the sunset

Occasionally a sunset comes along that serves as a bookmark, something you can go back to and remember exactly what was going on at that time in your life.

My Dad and I saw one such sunset on a road trip to Taranaki last weekend. We were driving down the coast to visit his mum. It was as though the horizon had been screen-printed with three pure colours: ocean, sky and the sharp silhouette of the mountain. I found myself jealous of the west coast. We have the sunrise but they get the sunset.

Dad and I listened to a lot of sports radio on the trip. Apparently there is a cricket tournament on. An old adage is that radio is theatre of the mind. True enough, I feel as though I got to see the entire West Indies game even though all we did was listen to it. Great catch, Vettori.

My grandmother lives in Dad’s hometown deep in the ‘Naki. She is in full time care, pushing 98 and mostly deaf which makes life even harder than it already is.

A couple of years ago she said, “I’m not really daft. I only pretend – to get attention.” That was a joke of hers.

It is fair to say she has faded since then. Old age is hard work. She lit up when she saw Dad but she didn’t recognise me at all. No amount of explanation appeared to help her understand who I was.

I wasn’t quite ready for that. It’s too long since I’ve seen her, but mostly it is just the twilight settling in.

We found a piano in a remote corner of the rest home, a far cry from the grand piano that once graced her family lounge. I gave her a little recital. I don’t know how much of it she could hear but she kept an eye on my hands and there were moments when her foot got tapping.

We took her for a drive to look at the ocean. We took her for a slow cup of tea. She patiently let us ferry her around. I have no idea how much she took in.

We sat in the sunny rest home courtyard. One of the residents said to us through the window, “How do you get out of here?” We thought she was asking how to get outside, but she continued, “I don’t have anyone. I can’t stand it. Sometimes I just want to jump off a cliff.”

What do you say to that?

There is something entirely unsatisfactory about the way we keep old age out of our line of sight. I don’t think anyone really knows how to deal with it. We smile at it for as long as we can and then we turn away.

My grandmother once said the following words. Dad wrote it all down while she spoke very slowly with long pauses between each sentence: “Think more of the joy and not the sorrow. And don’t take offence. All I can wish for is to get well or die. And I don’t mind which. I’m over the hump. I’m used to it now if people have to look after me. Don’t worry about me. Because I don’t.” 

My grandmother entered her final years with wisdom and laughter, fortified with a life lived generously and free of bitterness. All we can do is trust that those qualities are enough to sustain her as she journeys deeper into the silence, that the moments when she is present are flooded more with love and light than loneliness.

It doesn’t feel right leaving the elderly to themselves. But there is only so much we can do. Eventually we turn away, walk back into our own busy lives, cheer for the cricket team, contemplate the sunset.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 27 March 2015. Reproduced with permission.