Last week I was in a fast food restaurant and this is what I saw:
A very old man and woman, possibly in their 90’s, sat at a table directly in my line of sight so that it was hard not to notice them.
It appeared they had each ordered from what we’d call the Dollar Menu, with items appearing small enough to be consumed in three or four normal bites.
They ate slowly, and after a few minutes I noticed that they were eating silently as well. I glanced at them occasionally and never saw them speak to each other during their meal. They just ate their small burgers and small fries, and periodically smiled at each other. That was it.
In time their meal was done. They both stood up, but it was difficult work. Even with the aid of their aluminum canes it took them each about five seconds to rise from their seats to a standing position, as they balanced and steadied themselves before beginning the long slow walk to the restaurant door.
At the door the old woman paused, and the old man enacted a ritual that had probably been part of their life for seventy years—he took a second to park his cane on his forearm, balanced himself against the door handle, and slowly opened the door, adjusting his balance carefully as he pulled it open. Then she moved slowly past him, a feeble queen and a fading footman, both still summoning the dignity the act deserved.
In all this time I never saw a word pass between them, but I saw their smiles.
When I was in my teens and twenties, old people were invisible, or, when one of them stumbled across my field of vision, irrelevant. With the exception of a grandmother I dearly loved, old people might just as well have been leaves blown from the trees in the first brisk autumn wind for all I cared. You ignore the leaves while they fall, and walk on them without notice once they cover the sidewalk. As a teenager it seemed to me I had a greater chance of making millions as an NBA player than one day becoming old.
Nowadays I’m not old, but I’m getting there. Those jogging miles I used to cover in 8 minutes now take twelve. Thinning hair, thickening waist, and—oddest of all—not feeling particularly bad about it. But now when I see old couples holding hands it no longer seems irrelevant.
I suppose it’s because you can’t stop the creeping social invisibility of aging. All you can do is stay close to the dwindling number of fellow humans to whom you are more than just a walking collection of infirmities to provide a good living for the medical class. To everyone else aging is a sort of embarrassment, as if you’re expected to apologize to every 30-something you meet for having the audacity to travel the road they’ll one day be travelling themselves.
While I’m not crazy about the slow physical deterioration of aging, I’m not afraid of it. What I fear, and what I think others like me fear, is the unstoppable fade out, the ghosting of a life while still living, and, worst of all, losing that one person still capable of simultaneously seeing not only the today us, but the us of thirty, forty, fifty or more years ago, when life had no finish lines, beauty was accomplished just by waking up in the morning, and energy was a bank account that could never be depleted.
Meanwhile, after carefully negotiating the curb separating them from the parking lot, the old man and old woman walked slowly, canes in hand, toward their vehicle. I noticed that his free hand cradled her elbow as they walked, supporting her, except that perhaps in the process she was supporting him. I have no idea. At any rate, they supported each other as they walked.
I thought of my wife at home, who knows me start to finish, and I her, and the moment became embarrassingly personal. I dropped my eyes and finished my Frosty.