By a round-a-bout set of circumstances, I found myself having Christmas lunch with about two dozen people, all between the age of sixty and ninety. My initial reaction to being invited to the event, was one of uncertain uneasiness, not because of the age group, but just because I am not a huge fan of crowds of any age, my limit tends to be three or four people before I start to feel a little uncomfortable.
At around one pm, my mum and I made our way down to the communal area where the lovely caretaker/manager lady had set up a veritable banquet hall, her abilities in the kitchen, and her friendly, professional manner when dealing with her charges, are a sight to behold, and I will ever be grateful for the way she looks after my mum and the other residents.
Christmas decorations hung from every available surface, crackers were strewn across the table, and the smell of Christmas lunch wafted from the busy kitchen. As we came through the door we were greeted by the residents with warm smiles and friendly hellos, names were exchanged, walkers were shuffled, teeth were put back in, and jokes were cracked. The predominantly English crowd seemed happy to share their day with this young whipper snapper, “The Australian” as I became known to those who had not heard, or could not remember my name.
It has been awhile since I felt like a whipper snapper, and being around people who had truly lived, and were still living life was a much needed wake up. Being told again that 31 was young, reminded me that despite the creak in my knees, and balding head, I still have a relatively long way to go.
I, and I believe most people have a tendency to dismiss the lives and opinions of our senior citizens, despite our occasionally muttering how “they have seen so much” , we seldom actually believe their contributions are valid, as if our youth and larger allotment of life left to live somehow means our efforts are more valuable than theirs. Sure, a younger person is more likely to contribute to the economy, or to try and save the whales, but this, the older generation has a solemn dignity which is very often missing from that of my peers, and they are a great laugh.
This is not to say they are perfect, regardless of age, we are all people and we all have our quirks, for me though it seemed like the quirks of these welcoming people were harmless and entertaining, especially when married with the friendliness and stories which they shared with me.
I have a fear of dying, not of the act of death itself, but the idea of my life coming to an end. So this lunch could potentially have pushed me into quite a depressive state. There is no doubt that there is a sadness in some peoples eyes, that there is a loneliness one can only know when their loved ones have passed, leaving them here on this earth somewhat alone. I see it in their faces, and hear it in their voices when they tell me a story which involves someone now deceased. The amazing part is how they deal with it, and how they still live, as best they can, while they can.
I know I would be devastated if Sarah were to pass away, or if my family were no longer here. These people live with that daily, and yet they still live. They sit around in the hall, cracking jokes laden with sexual innuendo (such as the raffle prize of premium Brazilian nuts), laughing and talking about their days and their past, they eat a great Christmas lunch, have a raffle, get a bit tipsy (and occasionally hammered), and then they chat some more and digest.
Often the conversation flows around doctor visits, who’s marbles are little loose, or the mention of a resident who recently passed, sometimes it is peppered with humor, other times with a silent respect, and perhaps a second or two of sadness in the eyes. All of it however is discussed in a matter of fact way. These are our lives, these are the things we live, and that is that.
There is a lovely woman here who let me read one of her poems, it was a beautiful poem and far surpassed anything I could write. It had depth and an immense amount of feeling. She told me I was the only person who had ever read it, and despite being sad that that should be the case, I also felt proud that she had shared it with me.
There is so much strength and beauty in these people, sure there are silly arguments, awkward comments, medical issues, many misunderstandings, external teeth and internal conversations, but there is a control over themselves which I think very few people credit. They know their time in this world is limited, they all know that they will likely live out their lives in this haven, and that the majority of that time will be spent in solitude, a solitude of their own choosing, but when your loved ones have already left, I imagine it would be hard to become strongly attached again. Some here are very social, some still have family that come to see them once in awhile, yet there is an overriding desire I see in most to be alone.
After reading the poem from the lovely woman with the long braid in her hair. I thanked and complimented her, and reflected on its meaning. As she walked slowly off into the cold and dark that is London, heading for her small home at the end of the lane, looking for the solitude her walls would provide, I could not help but feel a bit sad, although I did not have the opportunity to reread it as I should have to truly garner its intent, her poem seemed to reflect in part on the impermanence of life, and had a deep acknowledgement of the fact, it in part questioned whether the life which had been led had been enough, and whether there was any point to it. Her writing is wonderful, but will likely never receive the audience it deserves. I only hope that she might find some satisfaction in having made a young man grateful for the life he has left.
I take away from this experience two opposing emotions, the one I expected, a realization of where life inevitably leads, those of us who live long enough will likely find ourselves alone in a similar place, occasionally meeting our neighbors and sharing with them our thoughts.
The second emotion was a surprise though, I also found here people who are still living, and who pull greater enjoyment from a coffee and a fag than we would from a holiday on the beach. In my life I have a tendency not to appreciate things enough, to dismiss travelling in another country as “all right”. When I watch these lovely people, when I hear talk of dying friends and hospital visits, when an ambulance drives up the road and everyone is ready for whatever may come, when someone hasn’t left their home for weeks but shows unexpectedly for a meal, when any one of the million things the older folks have to deal with comes to fruition. I see the acknowledgement of a life winding down, but I also see the true pleasure and appreciation they have for smoking a fag, for another great meal, for a good chat, for a well grown vegetable garden or rose bush, for another day.
Some are a bit out there, some have bodies broken by time, but all are friendly, funny, intelligent, and have more to offer than a thousand people my age, and I am happy and grateful to have shared another Christmas with them.