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Longevity and the heartbreaking reality of what it means to live past 90

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It’s no secret that sometimes youth betrays you. Youth makes you think that you’re powerful, invincible even, that you’ll never age and that you’ll last forever. When you’re young, you think that the energy that you wake up with each morning is going to be the same when you’re 40, 50 or 60 or older. 

We grow up thinking that mom and dad are always going to be there, that we’ll always see our siblings and friends and coworkers. The only people we know when we are little that may die sooner are our grandparents. Why? Because they’re old, and with age comes a higher probability of death.

I don’t know if this expectation — that you have a higher chance of dying the older you get — is something that we learn from our parents when we are little. I can’t recall if my dad or mom explained why grandma or grandpa were old, why they had so many wrinkles, or why they moved slower than the rest of us. I just observed their wrinkles and stopped and wondered if that would happen to me eventually.

I can’t recall if my parents ever explained to me what death meant. Try explaining to a six-year-old that they’ll never see their grandpa again and why. Death is a difficult concept to grasp, but it is a part of life.

And while we can only imagine what we’ll look like or how we will feel when we reach “old age” (being “old” is relative), making it to age 90 with a sound mind and body should warrant a gold medal. “It’s not easy to watch everyone you know die. It’s not easy to bury one of your sons, when you always thought that the natural way of life was that you died before your children did,” my now 93-year-old grandmother has told me many times.

She’s seen a lot in her lifetime. Born in 1922, the eldest of a family of six who lived on a huge farm with horses, chickens and cows, my grandmother saw that her way to provide a better future for her family was to educate herself. While some of her brothers and sisters hated school, my grandma knew that that was her way to make a better life for herself, her family and even help her siblings out.

She lost her father at a young age and was forced into taking care of her younger siblings. She would do housework, homework, and try to help guide the younger kids through life. She knew that she wanted to become a doctor, but back then, that wasn’t a popular option, so she became the next best thing: a nurse.

She was interning at a hospital about two hours away from her hometown during World War II. She always recounts the frightful nights spent half-asleep, half-dressed in the nurse’s dorm, turning all lights off and not making a sound when the air raid sirens went off.

She also tells of the times that they were helping German or Russian soldiers who made it to the hospital after being hurt somewhere else, possibly in battles somewhere in the ocean, on ships or submarines. She remembers with glee and nostalgia the many dances she went to and where she met “many handsome sailors and soldiers” who would all trip on each other to try to dance with her.

She speaks of her beauty when she was younger: how tiny her waist was because she used a type of corset, how she used to style her hair, and how every woman should always wear the reddest lipstick. “You have to dress to impress,” she’s always telling me, while frowning that I use very lightly colored lip gloss instead of her red matte lipstick.

You can see her eyes light up when she retells the story of how she met my grandpa, a doctor, how he saved a lot of people when a train derailed, and how people used to remember him. She counts the times of struggle after his sudden death and how she was left to raise two boys by herself, something that must not have been easy in the mid-1950s.

My grandmother is a strong-willed woman. She’s opinionated, loud, happy, colorful, loving — if overbearing at times — and benevolent. She has always given to those who don’t have, even if she’s left with nothing herself.

She’s lived a long life, surrounded by friends and family. And for the first time in my short life span on this Earth, she’s in the hospital, trying to recuperate from a bad case of pneumonia that has almost killed her, and which has had other complications.

I’m very close to my grandmother, having spent most weekends at her house as a child. She’s part of my family. And seeing her in the hospital has made me question many things: Do I want to live to be so old? Sure, her mind is clear and sharp, but her body seems to be giving up. What will happen now? She doesn’t want to be sent to a nursing home or assisted care living facility — that might kill her faster, she’s said many times.

The reality of old age has hit me and my family in an unexpected way. We always knew that she was going to “last this long” because she’s a strong lady, but now that she’s in the hospital, what will happen when she gets out? She can’t live by herself anymore, something that has become more and more apparent in the last five years, but she won’t move in with my parents.

And between her moments of lucidness — the antibiotics she’s on have made her hallucinate — she’s begun asking, “What’s going to happen when I’m out of here? Who’s going to take care of me? Am I going to my home?”

Questions that I can’t answer, that I have no say in, which my father has to reply because she is his mother.

The only thing I can do is write her story in the hopes that it will get the planning conversation started.

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