Transforming the conversation on aging.

When Does a Woman Know That She is Old? by Martha S. Waller

“You’re married, Mrs. Waller?” My interlocutor was Professor Ellsworth of the English Department at Indiana University. He was taking his turn at the duty of assigning graduate students to seminars. Stifling the temptation to tell him that his question was redundant—how could I be Mrs. Waller without having been married? -- I replied, “Why, yes.” After all, I was feeling out of my depth among the long-haired and under-clothed students at Bloomington in the late sixties. “Any children?” “Yes.” “How many?” “Five.” “Oh, dear!” Universities were being besieged by students in those days when the teacher shortage was expected to continue and when student status carried exemption from the draft. Then a pleasant thought occurred to him: “Well, it’s just one seminar, and you can always drop out if it’s too much for you.” He scrawled his initials on my card. I had decided not to jeopardize myself any further by telling him that I was also teaching full-time at a small denominational school, Indiana Central College, and that I had regularly taught nearly twice as many semester hours as he was teaching--for the past seven years.


Then Indiana Central granted me a sabbatical year, at the customary half pay, to pursue a doctoral degree. I was to have a curious resume: B.A., 1941, M.A., 1942, Ph.D., 1973. So here I was the next fall a full-time student again, older than all but one of my professors. I was the object, on the rare occasions that my fellow students noticed me, of mixed reactions. With the Viet Nam war raging, a few seemed to wonder why that old biddy was taking up a seminar seat that could be put to better use by a young man anxious to avoid military service. (Sometimes I wondered, too.) Other students apparently approved of me for doing my own thing. Feminists evidently sympathized, especially as they grasped my situation. When my fellow students decided I was for real, I became one of them, despite my lack of faded blue jeans or a beard, despite my weird-ness as a woman who had been living with the same guy for twenty-seven years, and was in fact married to him all that time. I was different, yes, but not really old. In the classroom or the library, I was a student, and the others eventually accepted me as such.


When should a woman recognize herself as old? If it wasn’t going back to school, perhaps it ought to be retiring from full-time work—or celebrating a Golden Wedding—or moving out of the big house into a cozy condo—or surrendering one’s driver’s license for a senior ID. Through all of these, I felt simply myself--less spry perhaps, a bit slower, but not really old.


But in 2008 came the watershed, though I was slow to recognize it, camouflaged among the boulders, the outcroppiongs, and the overgrowth of eighty-eight years. I was still simply myself, just moving along, living alone now, taken to market by a daughter, but doing my own housework, getting myself to the doctor and walking to the dentist, picked up by a friend for church, and doing bits of volunteer work. Those five kids about whom the professor had worried were all established in their careers; they probably were worrying about me, but—I bless them for it--they weren’t fussing.


In June came a delightful interlude. Son Dick flew down from Anchorage and took me aboard a cruise ship sailing from its winter routes in the Caribbean to Alaskan waters for the summer. We had a heavenly time, more hours together than we’d had in many years. I’d never been before to the charming city of Vancouver, where we disembarked and Ann, his wife, joined us. We ate out, laughed together in the wax museum, and hiked for miles on end in Stanley Park. Then they put me on a plane for L.A. and flew home.


So far so good—I was still myself, used to how my mind and my body would respond to what went on around me and inside me. Then it began to happen. First, as far as I can recall, I was standing by my bed, putting on a sweater. Then colors--my green sweater, the blue bedspread, the curtains—faded to gray and the room began to feel unsteady, with the floor tilting. I felt myself falling—fortunately backward onto the bed. In a moment I was okay again. For a few days, that is.


In the middle of October, things became really muddled. There were the special days: the twins’ birthday, the date on which I lost Mac (after sixty years)—our wedding anniversary the next day.


This time I wasn’t in my room—it was a steep walk with concrete steps I suddenly couldn’t descend (just the way three days before I’d freaked out at the down escalator in the bookstore and fled to the elevator). But this time I suddenly saw my mouth, as if in a mirror, with bloody gums and broken teeth. Then, seconds later, as daughter Marguerite came to my rescue, all was normal again. The next day I was sitting at my dining table using my sharpest kitchen knife to fix the green beans I’d got at the farmers’ market for the supper at which I expected daughter Susan. Suddenly I had cut myself horribly—slicing half-inch deep into my left fore-finger, oozing blood along the edge of the cut. Then everything became vague; the next thing I can remember is seeing Susan and Marg bending over me. I suppose I must have been lying down. Hours had passed. My hand showed no sign of injury. The girls—they are thoroughly adult women--told me I had been talking what sounded like language and was evidently coherent to me but utterly incomprehensible to them.


Susan had been earlier exploring the internet on my behalf seeking information on melodies that refuse to stop repeating themselves in a person’s brain. Though there was no connection with music, my recent episodes struck her as symptomatic of TIA—transient ischemic attacks, tiny breaks in blood vessels smaller than a hairsbreadth in diameter, in the brain, healing quickly without causing permanent damage, but warning of the danger of strokes.


There followed seemingly endless visits to the emergency room. After fuzzy gray passages of time, there came hospitalization, with endless tests with unpronounceable clumps of letters for names, EKG, EEG, MRI, and more. I lost track of the doctors as well as of the technicians and nurses.


At last the doctors reached agreement. One of them was speaking to me, though I can’t recall whether it was in the room that I shared with two other women, an office of some sort, or a conference room. I can hardly place myself in the hospital, yet I knew I hadn’t left the place. This man whom I had never seen before, as far as I could recall, was speaking to me. He was wearing a white coat, so he must have been a doctor. I don’t remember his name, though at the time I made an effort to call him by it. He must have told me that he was the assistant of my internist. Try as hard as I like, I can’t reconstruct the scene. All I can recall is the diagnosis: TIA.


There followed a week (it seemed endless, and I scarcely slept) in convalescent care, I thought frantically and disconnectedly about things--eggs, milk, fruit--spoiling in the refrigerator, bills piling up, unanswered mail. I needn’t have worried, I suppose; Susan and Marg looked out for the condo, and lawyer daughter Elizabeth, who lived farther away, attended faithfully to my affairs.


Next I found myself in a senior residence with a practical nurse who lived in my room and oversaw my every act, hovering over me like a helicopter. I was miserable, but I realized that those five wonderful kids of mine would be worried all the time unless I lived in a place where I would be safe. The place I was in I detested, all except for the two women with whom I was able to eat breakfast. Lunch and dinner were regimented, as was almost everything else, and the food was at best mediocre. There was one redeeming feature: economy. But I said: “Please, not here.” The girls plus son Don, who flew a couple of thousand miles to reassure himself and me, took me on a tour of the sheltered care places in the area, and we settled on the one place I really liked and where my children need not worry about me. I don’t worry, either. I feel all right about myself. And I recognize that, since October of 2008, I am indeed old.

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