The Opposite Sex 

Aging (dis)gracefully

Aging (dis)gracefully

DANNY: In the very back of my closet, shoved into a plastic bag, is a big piece of white cross-stitch cloth with one purple W embroidered on it. It seems that, at some point, I lost my mind and decided I was going to sew the entire “When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple” poem, then have it framed.

I’m a sucker for inspirational quotes that have to do with living life to the fullest and enjoying it while you can. And every year, right when the weather gets a little chilly, I decide I’m going to cross-stitch. I’ll envision myself drinking hot tea, piled up under my electric blanket and sewing while the snow falls gently outside my window. Why I have this recurring Laura Ingalls Wilder fantasy, busy as I am, I cannot be sure. But if there’s one benefit to getting older, it’s that I’m beginning to recognize these patterns and understand myself better.

But are there any other benefits to getting older? I’m starting to wonder. Three weeks ago, Dad and I decided to make the trek north to Pittsburgh to visit my grandparents. Would I rather have been at the beach? Sure. The dirty steel suburbs of Pittsburgh will never be mistaken for a tropical paradise—but the beach is forever and grandparents are not. And besides the fact that they’re always so happy to see me, it’s a good reality check for me. Because no matter what I pack or how fabulous I think I look, up on their mantel they’ve still got the picture of me with the freshly home-permed poodle hair, rooster bangs, and a shiny rash of pimples. But most importantly, this trip gave me the heads-up that my golden years are going to take one of two roads.

My maternal grandmother kicks ass. She’s about 4-and-a-half feet tall, Italian and proud, can bake you a mean biscotti, and has a hotline to her bookie for the Lotto. She plays bridge with the ladies and donates to charities, but if she spies a burglar trying to get into her garage, she’s not afraid to open a window and yell, “I’ve got a gun right here, buddy! You want the bullet in your ear or up your ass?” What I find most inspiring about her is that, at the ripe age of 88, she sold her house of 56 years, moved into an assisted-living community, set up housekeeping, and made all new friends—just like that. On my recent visit, they had an accordion player serenading the guests in the dining room, and my grandmother, who gets dizzy just turning around, twirled all over the dining room, snapping her fingers and flashing her gams at the busboys. She paused for just a second to tell me, “Nothing hurts when you’re dancing. Come on!”

My paternal grandmother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease on my first birthday. In the last five years, the ailment has taken its toll. She cannot move, talk, or do anything other than open her mouth for the nurse who feeds her puréed meals. She sits all day propped up in a chair as the television blares soap operas and her roommate yells at nobody in particular, “Where’d you put it, honey? I can’t find it! I can’t find it!” Every single day, my grandfather visits. He holds her hand, asks questions that are never answered, and tells her how much he loves her. Every once in a while, he’ll bring her a Popsicle for a special treat. When he goes home to a lonely house, he stares off into space and wonders if it was worth working those 50 years in a steel plant, because the retirement turned out to be harder than mill work.

The poem that I’m never going to cross-stitch reads: “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me. And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves/And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.” It’s all about doing what you want while you can and not caring what people think. I think I’m going to get started on that kind of behavior pronto. I don’t know whether in my old age I’ll be dancing the tarantella at dinner, or I’ll be immobilized in bed while nurses tell my husband that I ate 80 percent of my chocolate pudding.

Am I afraid of getting older? Not really. I figure myself out a little more year after year, and I like that. But it can’t hurt to be a little more appreciative of owning a young, healthy body, and a lot more grateful to your friends, family, and especially grandparents before you start having to refer to them in the past tense.

BEN: There are only three things I truly fear in life. No, make that four: old age, death, snakes, and songs by Phil Collins. I think it will be possible for me to live safely far away from two of these things. The other two I know are completely unavoidable. In fact, if I’m unlucky enough to avoid any major diseases or health complications for the next 45 years, I may have to suffer through both instead of just one.

I do my best to avoid death like the plague, so to speak. I would just as soon not know what happens after I shuffle off this mortal coil. Therefore, I keep a keen, Spidey-sense of danger always active, be it when driving a car, riding in a plane, or crossing the street. And so far my instincts have been infallible: My car wrecks have been minor skirmishes at best, and I’ve never broken a single bone. The problem is, if I continue to outsmart the Grim Reaper, I’ll end up facing the only thing I may detest more than rigor mortis: being a Social Security recipient.

I’ll go ahead and confess that my discomfort with the elderly is based a lot on my own experience with family members. Every grandmother, great-aunt, and great-uncle I have wants to squeeze me, hug me, or (shudder) kiss me. Perhaps it stimulates my fear of the inevitable, but the fact is that being embraced by them just flat-out gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Then there’s trying to communicate with them. My relatives are always asking me a seemingly unending line of questions, but they don’t understand anything I say, because they quit paying attention to modern society years ago. So in response, they seem intent on seeing just how much red meat someone in his 20s can eat before he develops a massive coronary right then and there.

I suppose I’m especially sensitive to this because I just don’t want to become that kind of person. I don’t want to wake up one day and find that I’m completely out of touch and confounded by the modern world, telling the “young folk” how much better it was in my day. Much more than that, though, I don’t want to experience the painful disintegration of my bodily functions. But I can already see myself there: I’m only 26, and I already think everybody under the age of 24 is an idiot. I reminisce about things that happened five years ago like I’m at the end of my rope. And I already have to get up in the middle of the night to take a leak.

I guess my point is that I don’t share Danny’s vision of an octogenarian utopia where you’re going to sip your beloved chamomile and hunker down in your blanket to fend off the cold (which, by the way, for Danny is about 80 degrees). I think it’s going to be one disorienting long day’s journey into night, and all the purple in the world won’t keep me from wishing I’d had the courage to live fast, die young, and leave behind a good-looking, unwrinkled corpse.

E-mail your questions to Danny and Ben at


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