Throwaway People

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I had an appointment in Arlington, VA. As we were walking toward our destination, we noticed a thin, elderly lady standing near the street corner. She was exceptionally well groomed, and dressed in a colorful, neatly pressed outfit.

Leaning on her cane, she was looking around in what appeared to be a confused manner. We were concerned, because the temperature was well into the 90s, and it was a very humid day. As we approached her, my wife asked if she needed any help. She smiled sweetly and said that she was looking for her dentist’s office, but was not certain she was walking in the right direction.

She went on to explain that she had glaucoma and could not see very well. When she gave us the name of her dentist, I told her that it was just on the other side of the street, and said we would be happy to help her across. She appeared to be pleased by the offer.

My wife and I took hold of her arms, waited for the streetlight to change, then slowly helped her to the other side. As we approached the curb, she explained that even though she was not totally blind, she could not see the curb clearly enough to be sure she wouldn’t trip and fall.

We carefully guided her up over the curb and onto the sidewalk. She assured us that she could make it into the dentist on her own, so we wished her a nice day and began to turn away. Then, suddenly, the kindly little lady began talking to us about her life and her family. She said she was 90, and her eldest sister was still alive at age 99. She also mentioned that she had another sister who had passed away.

Several times, I said that we had to be running along to avoid being late for our appointment – and each time, she went on to another subject. Her deceased husband… her osteoporosis… her son who was a medical doctor. She seemed genuinely excited to have someone to talk to, and clearly did not want the conversation with two strangers to end.

It was obvious that she was lonely. One side of me wanted to stay and talk to her for as long as she wished, but the “responsible” side of me was thinking of our appointment. Awkwardly, we finally ended the conversation.

As my wife and I walked away, we turned around and watched that adorable little lady walk, with considerable difficulty, toward the door to the dentist’s office. I couldn’t help wondering if her doctor-son knew that his mom was walking by herself to the dentist in 90-degree heat.

As a result of that unexpected encounter in Arlington, many thoughts drifted through my mind the remainder of the afternoon. First and foremost, I thought about my 98-year-old mother. My mother was the ultimate housewife/mom at a time when such an occupation was considered noble. She spoiled the heck out of me, and I loved every minute of it. More important, I loved her to pieces… and still do.

I remembered how, from the time I was about six years old, whenever I spotted the smallest bit of debris on the floor, I would pick it up and throw it in the wastebasket because I didn’t want my mom to have to bend over. Now, with six children of my own, I’m still in awe of the fact that she, merely by being who she was, motivated me enough to want to spare her any unnecessary work.

I’m thankful that, in their senior years, I was able to do so much for, and with, my parents. A fabulous trip to Hawaii, full of joy and laughter, comes quickly to mind. Sunday night dinners at Matteo’s and gourmet meals at The Bistro in Beverly Hills, too. Having lived through the golden age of Hollywood, my mom and dad got a big kick out of eating at celebrity haunts like these.

I also thought about how long it’s been since I visited my mother… and about the time, when my brother-in-law’s mother died and I offered my condolences, he said, in a reflective tone, “You only have one.” As we go about our day-to-day lives, I guess it’s pretty easy to forget the obvious.

I think one of the chief reasons we tend to brush aside the elderly is that the society we live in is not only drowning in materialism and narcissism, but is a throwaway society as well. No one fixes anything anymore. When something is broken, you just throw it in the trash can… and then buy a new and better model.

So it’s only natural that we do the same thing with old people, right? After all, they can’t be fixed, so why not just throw them away? It’s too bad we place so little value on the elderly, because, on the whole, they have so much to offer. Wisdom… purity of thought… and, above all, tranquility. If the medical community could transplant an 80-year-old brain into a 21-year-old skull, one can only imagine how much better the life of the young person who owned that skull would likely turn out.

I believe it’s healthy to be conscious of the fact that we’re all on our way to the same destination: old age (provided we’re luckier than the Tim Russerts and Tony Snows among us). And when we arrive at that destination, let’s hope that we won’t be walking down a street alone, cane in hand, barely able to see the curb. And that our children will visit us often.

As Katharine Hepburn once said, “Life is hard. After all, it kills you.”