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Short Story on Aging


If you would have told me ten years ago that in my seventies I would have a facelift, I would have said you were crazy. Everyone in our family looks young naturally.  And for that, I had always thought I was very lucky. And, it was not my husband, Jack, who suggested the idea. When my sister had it done and most of our friends were comparing notes on their facelifts and cosmetic surgeries, I guess I felt left out.
Looking back on it now, the crows feet belonged on my face; good or bad.  I earned them. However, when I mentioned the lines around my lips and at the corners of my eyes, Jack said, "Alright Molly, have your face done."
And, I did. It's just that now I wonder what my real face would have looked like. How much did it really matter? I often ask myself that question.  Besides, who cares?  Our eyes are going bad anyway. I had always hoped that age would cure my vanity - that self-acceptance and companionship would be enough. They really are all I need,  but I was caught up in this stupid trend that tells us we are not good enough unless we look young.

We Americans are obsessed with youth and love exploiting the fear of old age. Old is out. Gray is bad. Gravity defying, big buoyant boobs, and steel buns are in. Aging has become a sin. Like leper colonies, there are too many facilities being built for us. People cringe when they see us shuffling our walkers across their floors. Could this ever happen to me? Yes. In every aging mind, the haunting question lurks. Let's pretend we are not aging. Let's erase the wrinkles and plant a smile for posterity.

When I was young, we admired our elders.  We looked to them for wisdom and common sense - not that they all had it, but many of them did.  I loved the warm affection and acceptance I felt sitting on my Aunt Lizzie's lap.  Who ever worried about her flabby arms and turkey jowls? But, that was then. Forget respect now; a wrinkle-free face and a pair of tight jeans have replaced that too. Then there is death - death is the polite thing old people do somewhere else behind closed doors.

Last weekend, I went to the concert at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota, Florida, with my husband.  Looking around at the elderly crowd, I started thinking about age and death.  The truth is: I am getting old.  Everyday the TV tells me the clock is ticking.  The concert hall was bustling with activity and then the lights started blinking to warn everyone to take their seats. I followed Jack.

"What good is a song without lyrics?" He grumbled one last time. I told him that his good deed would go over better if he would shut up.  He laughed and agreed.

"Here they are, Molly." Jack matched our tickets with our seat numbers motioning for me to enter the row and sit. Not being a fan of classical music, it was a purely charitable act for him to accompany me to the hall.

A few seats down the row I shuffled and sat next to an older gentleman, who appeared to be in his eighties or maybe nineties - a thin, frail looking man,  who wore an old suit that was too big for his shoulders and waist. With his meek and gentle eyes, he smiled politely. Cordially, I returned the gesture.

Pretending to look past him, I noticed his white cotton pajama bottoms with dark blue pinstripes peeking out from under the cuffs of his suit pants. In addition to this peculiar sight, he wore soft brown leather slippers to substitute for a pair of dress shoes.  Stealing a few more glances, I spied a plastic band around his wrist that was nearly concealed by the arm of his suit jacket. It was not difficult to guess that he was an escapee from a local nursing home or maybe a mental hospital. But, when I saw his gentle face, his warm eyes, and calm demeanor, I felt assured that he was most likely a nursing home refugee; not an uncommon sight around Sarasota.

Burying my face in my concert program, I thought about his situation. I did not want to bring him any embarrassment. I felt peculiar keeping this from my husband, but I thought that was my best choice. Though I discovered this old man's ruse, I was not going to be the one to ruin his last chance for triumph and freedom. Who else would honor this old man, I mused?

The hall lights overhead dimmed and the orchestra prepared to begin their first composition, Claude Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun. This dreamy magnificent piece was played with strings, two harps, flute, oboes, English horn, clarinets, French horns, and antique cymbals. The mythological faun was half man and half goat, who awakens in the pastoral forest. Upon his awakening, he tries to remember if he was visited by three lovely nymphs, but he can't recall. Was it a dream or not? The faun will never know.
I cannot help listening to the old man breathing restfully as the orchestra played Debussy's wistful melodies. Fighting away my tears, I looked at my anonymous friend. His breathing grew louder.  What if he was someone's husband or someone's father and they are searching for him right now? What should I do? Something inside forced me to let it go.  He is an old man weary of life; he must be tired of living in the nursing home. Too often old age steals their dignity as their bodies crumble, I thought to myself.
Of all the places to come, he was given this seat next to me. I wrestled with myself over what to do. Who am I to take it from him now? Leave him be. I am not the one to end it now - not me. I decided to leave it alone.   For over an hour more the music continued.  With trepidation, I looked at him realizing the concert was ending. I knew then I must offer to help him in someway. Without offense, I hoped he would accept it politely. I realized then that I could not leave the concert hall without assuring his safety.

I glanced over at him in the dark. He was still and his breathing grew silent. I stared through the darkness. His head slumped forward - chin upon his chest. The hall thundered with applause concluding the performance.  A wave of panic swept over me for a second and then passed. The lights came on. The old man sat motionless.  His breathing stopped. His unblinking eyes had come to rest. He was dead.

I turned to my husband and began to stutter: 

"I, I think, I think the, the man next to me is...is dead."

"He's what?"  Jack questioned.

 "Dead, I said." Jack stood up and looked around and then changed places with me as the audience began exiting the Hall.  My husband located an usher and gave him our ticket stub so they could quickly find the old man's seat. Following the tail end of the departing crowd, we left the building. I never told Jack what I had noticed about the old man before the concert started. I just wanted to protect this poor man's secret. The ride home was quiet that night. I began to worry. The question echoed in my thoughts throughout the short ride home; did I do something wrong? Had I made a mistake?  Maybe he needed medication; I wondered. Oh my God, what had I done?

That night, I didn't sleep well. While we were having our coffee the following morning, Jack said, "Listen to this," as he read from the Sunday morning newspaper:  "Last night following a concert presented by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center in Sarasota, former conductor, Aaron Jacob Stein, was found dead at the age of eighty-nine.  He had been sitting alone in the audience. The renowned violinist and long-time conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra had purchased a ticket to hear the New York Philharmonic Orchestra perform various works of Claude Debussy; one of Stein's most favored composers. The deceased's daughter, Ms. Karen Singer, had been worried after learning about her father's disappearance from the Manor Ridge Nursing Home.  She said that she was grateful to have learned that her father died doing what he loved most: listening to beautiful music. The director of the local nursing home had reported to the police that Mr. Stein was discovered missing only minutes after the concert had ended. He was found wearing a dark pinstripe suit, which concealed his pajamas that he was still wearing under his clothes. A memorial service is planned for Tuesday."

"Well, how do you like that!" Jack remarked.

"I wondered why he was wearing slippers."

"Oh, you noticed that, Molly?"

"Well, yeah; didn't you?"