One of the bad things about growing old is that an ever-increasing number of people you know, or sort of know, don’t.
Take my first husband, for instance. Although nine years older, until just a few months ago I thought he was hanging in there. Every time I looked him up, Google reported that he was alive and well in a town on Long Island, New York called St. James, with a wife named Rita. (She would have been the fourth; I was his second.) Good for him, I thought. 91 and still kicking! Maybe some day I’ll find myself in St. James, somehow or other, so he can eat his heart out.
Google was wrong. The last time I went hunting for him in an idle moment, I discovered his obituary in a textbook on English Composition. It was supposed to be an example of good expository prose. He had died of heart problems in 1988, a few months before his 66th birthday. For twenty-five years I’d been under the impression that he was still alive — and he wasn’t!
Oh, it was him, all right. The names of his children (by the first wife), his education and job history (up to 1960, when I left him) — it was all 100% correct. How could he have done this to me? Here I was living my life, thinking he was out there somewhere. And he was dead!
I got over it. But then it happened again. After five miserable years with colon cancer, chemo, radiation, adhesions, colostomy bags, ileostomy bags, ports in the arm for feeding and fluid intake, breaking a hip, breaking another hip, cancer in the liver — one of my two closest friends died just before her 75th birthday. I’d known her since I was 29 and she was 22.
That one I won’t get over so fast.
However, almost as bad as what you know is what you don’t know. About three years ago, I volunteered to take over the job of Class Correspondent for my college’s bi-annual magazine. Mine was the class of 1952. Meaning that was the year we graduated. [If we did. The college counts everyone who enrolled in September 1948 as part of the class, irrespective of what may have happened afterwards. Transfer students count, too. Tax-free gifts can come from anywhere.]
I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to renew old ties, forge new bonds with a large group of people who go back as far as me. I never thought to ask the last Class Correspondent why she quit.
The college yearbook for 1949 lists 86 freshmen enrolled for the ’48-’49 academic year, and two more as unclassified who later joined our class, plus one special day student: 89 all together. The 1952 Program for Commencement lists only 65, including transfers from other schools, as Candidates for the Degree of Bachelor of Arts.
The list I received from the college when I undertook to collect the ’52 news twice a year had 64 names on it. Pretty good survival rate, don’t you think? Well, no. Add the transfers to the 89 at the starting line and you’ve got at least 100 — of whom more than a third were gone for good before I even began.
One more died while I was still looking over the list. I had spoken with her by telephone a couple of years earlier, to see if she was coming to a reunion. [We were in our mid-70s then.] She said she wasn’t. Then she said that after her husband died, she moved from Rome, where she had lived with him for thirty years, to be near two daughters in California. But the daughters weren’t very near, and she had peripheral neuropathy in both feet, which meant it hurt to walk, and she could barely totter to her car to go anywhere, and she was very unhappy and didn’t know what to do. And I was very unhappy for her, because without knowing her very well I had always liked her (although we didn’t talk about those things when we were young) and I didn’t know what to do to make her feel better, because nothing ever would.
Now I had 63 names. But were they still all alive? If no one informs your college you’re gone, how can the college know? It will go on sending you its magazine with the class “news,” and also its appeals for money — until the post office sends everything back.
I wrote to everyone. I needed a lot of stamps. Only fourteen members of the class, excluding me, had e-mail. Why was that? E-mail has been around for at least twenty years, since we were all about sixty-two. What is it with these women? One of them, who used to be quite a close friend, wrote back from England to explain. She typed her letter on a smallish rectangle of tissue-thin paper, without margins, right out to the edges, so as not to waste any space. Didn’t she know air mail now costs no more than mail delivered by packet boat? [Are there still packet boats?] I quote her: “As you may have guessed from this spectral typing, I don’t own a working computer and am a complete Luddite technophobe.” She added: “I do a prodigious amount of reading — proper books, not those nasty little tablet things.”
So there, twenty-first century!
Another, who permitted me to visit her in New York City, where she lives in a large darkened apartment with full-time help, is in a wheelchair because “something” is wrong with her hip but she won’t go to a hospital. Her daughters bring clothes and books; her son has set up a computer in the apartment, connected to the internet. She refuses to learn how to use it, although her brain appears to be in perfectly good working order. “What do I need all that for?” she asked me.
Since that first round of letters, essentially unproductive for publication, I’ve only done e-mail with the fourteen who have it. [Or who have let the college know they have it.] What do I mean ly “unproductive?” Well, can I really put in the magazine that A.’s blood sugar is hard to control and T.’s arthritis prevents offering tea if anyone visits her in Connecticut?
Now the fourteen are shrinking in number. One e-mail was just returned; addressee unknown. Another came back because “addressee no longer has internet service due to circumstances beyond her control.” I spent a couple of days wondering what circumstances. Nursing home? Alzheimers? Who would I ask? Do I really want to know? I hear from their former friends that two more do have Alzheimers, and are in nursing homes.
The ’52 Notes will go on. I will put down that E. in Delaware is grateful her health is still good and her children are well. That C. is moving to an assisted living facility for the winter, but is keeping her house for summer. That P. in Israel and M. in Washington are reading a lot, and that T. in Massachusetts has given up her painting to take care of her husband, who is not well. I’m meeting F. in New York for lunch at a restaurant in a few weeks, and will be able to report on that. Those are the ones who still answer.
But what of the others? I look at the 65 of us in the 1952 yearbook — young and fresh and innocent, in our white blouses and pin-curled hair. It doesn’t seem so long ago. Best listen to Henry James (The Ambassadors, Bk. 5, Ch. 2): “Live, live all you can!”
While you can.