I write this on my mother’s birthday — although I may not publish it right away. If she were alive, she would be 99 years old this year.
She wouldn’t have wanted to live that long. A Christian and a believer, she expected to be reunited with loved ones after she died. I’m sure that at some point she would have chosen that reunion over soldiering on in a debilitated body.
As it turns out, she only lived one month of debility, from the date of her diagnosis of breast cancer to her unexpected death four weeks later of what was later determined to be mesothelioma. I suspect that if they hadn’t operated on her breast, she would have lived longer.
As it was, she enjoyed excellent health until her sudden death at age 74.
This week I am realizing that the age at which your parents die is an important number. It hangs around in your brain and strikes a bell every now and then.
This is happening to me and to my friends.
Recently, my friend Dick Linford, 69, of ECHO River Trips, began an essay by reporting wryly, “When my father was my age, he had been dead for 12 years.”
Then Dick turns serious and adds, “You learn two big things from your parents. What to be, and what not to be…By dying at age 57 he left me no model on how to live — and not live — my final 20 or so years.”
This number — age of death of your parents — also came up in a group of friends, all married women, who were discussing the cheerful subject of when we and our husbands might die. (OK, not a cheerful subject, but we were laughing.)
Apparently, each of the other couples had an understanding about who would die first — not who wanted to die first — but who was more likely.
In one case, the husband was 15 years older than the wife and, therefore, more likely to die first. But when the age difference was slight, the women looked towards parental experience as a strong predictor. One woman, the same age as her husband and in similar good health, reported that they both expect him to die first.
I asked why.
“My parents lived into their 80s,” the wife explained. “His did not.”
“How about you, Marion? Who’s going to die first?” someone asked.
I laughed — sort of. “We haven’t got that worked out yet,” I replied, perhaps because the length of our parents’ lives don’t offer clear guidance. Mine died at 74 and 89. Bob’s dad died at 82 and his mom, 84, is still living. It’s not clear yet who has the better odds — if outliving your spouse can be seen as “better.”
Should I be dwelling on this?
Several years ago when I wrote a column about aging, a respected local citizen chided me. Many years older than I, she wrote that I was way too young to be feeling sorry for myself. Later, when we talked, it came out that her parents had lived well into their 90s. She expects to live a long time, too, so I understand why my nattering at age 60 seemed ridiculously early to her.
Someone whose parents died young might not think the same way.
This week, as I await my Medicare consultation at the Davis Senior Center, scheduled on my mother’s birthday, I can’t help but think about the future. I bought a new legal-size notebook, the kind I use to save my columns, that gives me space for three years more. When shelving it, I discovered I had bought an extra notebook last time — which means I have space for six more years of columns.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that I’m forgetting things.
My parents’ history suggests that I’ll have time to write many more columns, if that’s what I choose to do. I hope I won’t dwell too much on growing old, but the issues are much on my mind.
My mother was a suburban mom and teacher who lived what she believed. But her beliefs included not saying much about her struggles, her adult decisions, or her disappointments in life.
I honor her. I miss her something awful. But I didn’t know her — not the way I wish I had. Her clean living gave her the option to maintain propriety, but I wish she had chosen to reveal more to her daughter. Like my friend Dick, whose dad died at 57, I seek parental guidance through the later years.
Dick’s essay ends with a final snapshot of his paradoxical parent. “Dad’s whats-not-to-be for outnumbered his whats-to-be. He was a depressed chain-smoking alcoholic, perpetually indignant about life’s unfairness. He lived in a hovel and seemed to enjoy alienating his few friends. And yet he was unflappable, eloquent in both speech and writing, and had a strong moral compass that he passed on to his kids.”
I wonder what he might have done had he lived longer.
If I write frequently about aging, it’s because I want to make good choices. This becomes more urgent when you have fewer years left, but it’s a worthy goal at any stage of life.
Marion Franck is a columnist for the Davis Enterprise. She is a part-time resident of El Dorado County.