Friday, September 14, 2007

The Late Neighbors

When we moved here 15 years ago, we admired their style. Though in their early 70s, the couple was preternatrually attractive. He was tall and thin, with cobalt blue eyes. She was tiny, bleached grey-blonde and perfectly turned out -- her mouth an artistic triumph of thoughtfully chosen lipstick over thin flesh. In fact, I was told she modeled still as "Grandmother of the Bride" or "Older Woman" in New York shows. Every time I saw her, she was wearing a St. John Knit suit (a cool $1000, if purchased on sale).

They have an interesting house -- modern. Like a house designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright it sits low on the lot, but it's one and a half stories and two distinct wings. In the backyard, maybe 100 yards from the house, is a freestanding square deck, lit from below with spotlights. There's terrific sculpture visible from that vantage point too -- a red metal structure that looks like an extended concertina, a smear of metallic yellos in another corner. (I saw it all while chasing our then-young and curious dog through all the yards in the neighborhood). Some days, I'd see him down at their springhouse, doing garden work. All in all, I remember thinking to myself: "This is so unlike most old people!"

When the lights are on you could see the bright colors of the interior, orange and metal and picture perfect 1950s style. Apparently, they've lived long enough for their views to come back in style.

We met them at neighborhood barbecues, or we'd see him walking their old cocker spaniel past our house for our dog to meet. He greeted our Samoyed as "Whitey!" and pet her happily. They drove a convertible in most weather, and my heart jumped whenever I saw them head out; she with a headscarf and glasses like a surviving Grace Kelly and he with a devilish gleam and their golf clubs in the backseat. I saw them and prayed, prayed, that my "sunset years" would look like theirs -- blessed with health and looks and fun.

Lately I've seen how much changes in time. About 10 years ago, the fire department had to be called when they put a not entirely extinguished cigarette in the kitchen garbage. Over the last year or two, I've seen him outside multiple times, dressed inappropriately for the weather, looking confused. I saw her once, looking for their dog, and the beautiful mouth was a slash of misapplied vermillion wax. She was hunched over and hysterical. I called their next door neighbors, who are durable, decent, interesting people a decade or so younger. They told me they were also worried, but that the couple's children were involved, and would step in. But I never saw them.

This Spring, on one of my early-morning perambulations, I found pages of their brokerage statements in front of their house and blown about for blocks. I tracked it all down, every page of it containing social security numbers and account information, gathered it up, put a rubber band on it and returned it with their morning Newspaper. I wonder if they noticed.

My husband saw him wandering aimlessly a few months ago about 10 blocks from home. He offered a ride home. The man accepted, and kept introducing himself to my husband, who said just once, "We've been neighbors for 15 years." He didn't remember. He still walks a dog (they seem to adopt elderly cockers) past our house, but has become afraid of Whitey, who is too beset by arthritis to get within 30 feet. He's cursed at us for not locking her up, and appears genuinely afraid. We didn't know what to do anymore -- I don't know the names of their children, I don't want to burden the neighbors, I don't want to insult them. But it's increasingly obvious they can't care for themselves.

Yesterday when I came home from work I saw some more papers strewn in a perfect arc from their neighbor's house to theirs. I stopped the car and gathered a manila folder and some stapled sheets. Clipped to the folder was a card of the Admissions Director of our newest area "Care Center." Its a gorgeous place, with first rate facilities and stunning views of the local Black Angus and sheep farm. On the one hand, I'm thrilled -- they need help and this is precisely the sort of place they belong, where other interesting people who are having difficulty congregate. But I know in my heart that as they approached the house, he (or she) threw the folder out the window, seeing its contents as the beginning of the end, the prison from which they will never escape. For these intelligent, free-spirited people, this very last part of their lives must be the worst. Their considerable beauty is gone, their bodies shrunken, their sanity and freedom on the run. They don't want to give up the afternoons in the convertible. I can't blame them.


Keifus said...

We Americans seem to want to ignore the tail end of life, even as we work like hell to draw it out. (Although convalescence seems to be a better deal these days than it used to be.)

When my grandfather died, it was his body that failed him around an active, sharp mind, slowly at first but speeding up. He was furious inside of that. He'd been furious about it for years. What can you do? His wife, my grandmother, turned 90 last week. She was as social as he was upstanding, and this past year she's been encouraged to stop living on her own among friends. She moved to a care center near her kids. The transition was probably necessary--bad knees come in teh family--but it seems to have cost her some of her own acuity. (Your neighbors remind me a little of them--stylish versions.)

I don't know if dementia is better--certainly it's not better for the people close--but maybe there's something about easing the slide into the big dark. Depressing as hell either way.

rundeep said...

Depressing as hell is exactly right. It's a long, hard, descent. I'm trying to figure it out. My husband's parents, like your grandmother, really didn't want to go to a "facility" no matter how it was dressed up. So they died. I'm not kidding -- my MIL took sick the weekend they were supposed to have a trial weekend there and died the next day. My FIL willed himself to death 4 weeks later. She was starting to get confused at the end, but really it still wasn't bad. They raged against losing independence until the last possible moment, and it worked. Though they were also so scared to die -- so unwilling to accept it would happen that they spent all their time furiously fighting it. That's when I decided to go back to church -- maybe it's delusion, but I want that comfort and the ability to slide ultimately into it without too much worry.

On the other hand, the fancy place that the neighbors are going (if they make it) has people with a very different frame of reference in it. A lot of the people going there are locals who are giving up their large houses while they still can maintain them. These people have money to burn, but they'd rather go to a community now and treat it like living at a country club then have to worry about selling or maintaining places in their 80s or 90s. It's undeniably easier on the family, but I wonder if when you sign that lease at 70 and you know it will be your last if that feels different, really, than when you are 80. Still trying to figure that one out.