FEAR OF OLD
My grandmother died at four o’clock in the morning in her bed. She was 91 even though she promised one day to reach to see hundred. Few years before her death she was energetic, full of life sort of person who walked long distances, chopped wood and washed her laundry by hand in huge basins. One day she just got tired and quickly faded away. She stopped doing crossword puzzles, refused to go outside. Her days were spent wandering around in her apartment calling out strange names and places until one day she didn’t get up at all. In the end of her life she weighed less than forty kilos. When me and mom undressed her after she had quietly passed away and put on her “funeral clothes” she had handpicked a decade ago, it felt like she had never existed at all.
At the age of twenty, all this, my grandmothers old age, her fast decline and death, seemed like a natural, unquestionable part of life- you get old, you get sick, you die and the idea that one day all this will happen to me felt so far away that it had no resonance. It didn’t ring home.
Today I am in the period of my life where there are many old people around me. My own parents and my aunts and uncles and their friends who when I was born in 1981, were vital, hardworking individuals, have retired. Some of them have serious health issues, some have economic problems, and some have spouses who have passed away. Not only have they aged but the familiar world they were part of has disappeared.
Today we live in a country that is speeding towards economic growth, faced paced, youth orientated, digitalised society, leaving the old people behind to slowly waist away. In other words, Estonians are ageing poorly. There is a feeling of abandonment and continually deepening generation gap. The old people who have done their duty, they are packed away to wait patiently for the approaching death.
Just before Christmas my aunty moves into one of those social homes waiting for the approaching death. Her new home is in the far outskirts of Tallinn suburb, close to the graveyard and one of the largest hospitals. It has long grey corridors and smells of urine. Her room is a small cube, almost too small to live in. Is is crammed with furniture and boxes, filled with old dusty diplomas, souvenirs from trips around the Soviet states and sentimental mementos that mean too much to be thrown away.
Her new toilet has a panic button. The shared kitchen is outside in the end of the corridor but gets seldom used as the food is provided. Aunt sighs as she hears this because in her past, more human life, she could cook her own soup. But the reality is that at the age of 78, without a husband to support her, she no longer can afford to live.
Why am I afraid of ageing in Estonia? Perhaps it is those grey long corridors and seeing those old people killing time, walking slowly back and forth with their hand knit slippers, walking sticks and hearing aids all day long or perhaps it’s the social worker distributing lunch that looks and smells as something only people could eat when they have lost the eyesight and sense of smell. Or maybe it’s seeing my aunt, still so full of life, crammed in a small shoe box, alone with her soap operas and mementos.
In the next few months I visit the social home often. I spend time with my aunt and her fellow sufferers. Sometimes we watch television together, sometimes we drink tea and sometimes we talk. But we never talk about death or old age. Instead we talk about past times. Their youth, dance parties, midnight swims and winters that were so much colder then the winters we have today. First car. First kiss. First of many marriages. Children now past away. Husbands and wives who left them. Friends long gone.
I get no satisfaction from speaking about old times and what used to be. I want to talk about my future. Am I going to end up here? Will I, one day, get lost amongst the panic buttons and hospital food. Will I be lonely? Will I suffer?
But what can these old people tell me? I have not yet experienced what they have. I can’t imagine what being old is like.
I’m sitting in a dark room of one of the social home ladies. In three years she will be hundred, the age my grandmother so desperately tried to reach. On that big day mayor of Tallinn will send her a happy birthday card and box of chocolates.
Like all rooms in this social home, so is this small and crammed. The furniture is from the 70’- brown and shiny blocks of fibreboard. Stacked in the cabinet, behind dusty fingerprinted glass for display, are crystal salad bowls and plates- a must have for anyone born after the Great War.
How old is this room? All kitchen surfaces are polished to perfection with all the use. Design on a carpet is hardly visible. Shuffled feet have created a new pattern on this thousand year rug. I can follow the old lady’s daily routine on it- from the bed to the bathroom, from bathroom to kitchen sink and back to her sunken bed.
The paint above her bed is peeling.
How long have I been here?
It takes the nice old lady twenty minutes to go to the toilet. I am waiting impatiently.
“I am old, Eeva. I am not like you flying around like a spark,” she tells me.
“Well you should wear a diaper then,” I tell her. The room already smells- a mixture of urine, cleaning liquid and porridge she had this morning. It’s the smell of old.
“One day you are going to be old and slow and unfortunately I am not around to tell you exactly the same thing.”
What does it feel like to tell your body to walk and your feet refuse to cooperate? Or the world spinning around madly just because you got up too quickly? The fade of memory, faces and connections?
“It is not fun I can tell you this,” she says.
There is a painting of her on the wall when she was in her 20’s. I don’t want to look at it. I don’t want to hear about her youth when her life was so much like my own life today, full of happy things, people and events. It pains me to think that this old shivering woman was once like I am today- strong, sharp and able. The portrait on the wall is mocking both of us. Look at me! This is your past and your future. She used to have this thick brown hair that reached below her collarbones. Today she is almost bald with little thin white tufts of hair sticking out in odd angles. Before she had firm smooth skin that glowed. Today she has liver spots. Look how thin and limber she was. Today she is plump and sluggish, even the shoe laces are too far away. We are tricked by time. For me minutes seem like days. For her days feel like minutes.
When I finally stand reach the edge of my life, what do I feel?
“Nothing much,” she says. “If only pain.”
She complains about the pain in her legs that stop her from leaving her room. When you get old, your health is all you have, so we talk about health. For hours. We go through the prescriptions her family doctor prescribes her. There must be at least a dozen. The medicine is piled on a small table next to her bed. She complains about her pension. She gets less than 400 euros from the government, the pills are expensive, room is expensive, food prices are going up.
“Being old is expensive,” she tells me.
She shows me her family albums. Her two children. One who passed away when he was only seven years old. There is his death certificate placed between birthday party and travel photos. She has many grandchildren and great grandchildren. Today she is a great-great-great-grandmother. She is proud when she tells me this. No pain here. Well, a little pain. They all live in Finland and she sees them few times a year. When they visit she can’t speak with them because they don’t speak Estonian any more. She is a little bitter when she tells me this. As if life has taken from her the pleasure to communicate with her own offsprings.
It is also boring in great-great-great-grandmothers tiny room, nobody owns any smartphones. There is no internet connection here.
“Tolik has the radio,” she tells me.
When she gets up and shuffles to the mirror to comb what’s left of her hair, she looks at her own reflection and sighs to ask what has happened. As if to show her disappointment how unfairly the life treated her. Shouldn’t ageing be more graceful? Shouldn’t it be about inner peace and stuff like that?
But what do I know about this old lady. Perhaps a long time ago she was a pride in every wedding and deceased in every funeral. What do I know what the age has taken from her.
Surly this old age won’t happen to me? This old lady must have been old all her life. Death can be unexpected but it doesn’t compete with getting old. Old age sneaks up on us. It takes us by surprise when we are not looking.
I turn my back to the portrait to leave and she takes my hand. She worked in a match making factory for over forty years and her hands show it. She looks at me.
“Will you come back?”
“No,” I think. “Yes,” I say. Even the way she looks at me has changed over time. In the portrait she radiates, today she is like a black hole that sucks in all light.
My dad once told me when I asked him how he wants to die, that he wishes to wake up one morning after a long and peaceful night. Look outside his bedroom window. It’s a sunny beautiful spring. A new day is greeting him. There is sun and smell of coffee and a fresh newspaper somewhere. He will yawn and stretch and die. Right there on the spot, with no regrets, no pain, smiling broadly because nothing or no one has yet spoiled his new morning equilibrium. The best time to die is when there is nothing ahead to wait for.