It is the 15th of November; winter is over a month away, and yet the view outside my window is stark white with snow, far as the eye can see. Normally the first snowfall of the season engenders reverential awe, surprised delight, or some other positive adjective-noun combination. Not this time, it seems. A collective dismayed groan has sounded across the land. Maybe it’s because everything already feels so grim right now that the last thing we want to see is a reminder of the darkness and cold that lies ahead. Maybe we already feel tired of it all.
And yet there is, undeniably, a vitality to a wintery landscape. That swirl, that bite on your skin, that billow of steam when you breathe. You know there’s life here, despite everything.
I went to visit my family this past weekend. As miserable an experience as air travel is these days, I try to get back to see them at least a couple times a year. My parents are in reasonably good health, but given their age, that statement tends to be followed by “all things considered.” My father is 90, my mother 86. My father has trouble walking, hearing, and seeing. My mother’s mind isn’t as sharp as it used to be; there are muddled moments, particularly in terms of time. If you say “we’re leaving in 15 minutes,” she will respond with blank silence, like you said only “we’re leaving sometime.”
I always brace myself for my first glimpse of them in many months, fearing the worst, fearing they’ll appear hunched over, shrunken, skeletally thin and frail. I’m always pleasantly surprised. They’re old, obviously; polite strangers hold doors open for them and help them up steps. But they never seem to have changed all that much from the last time I saw them. In fact, this most recent visit, the only changes I noted were good ones.
“Look at this!” my mother tugged at my sleeve. She had a new elliptical machine in the corner of the living room. “I use this almost every day, 25 minutes.”
I looked over at my sister for confirmation, since who knows what 25 minutes meant to my mother. My sister nodded. “Yep. She does. Also, did you know that she and Ruth Bader Ginsberg are almost exactly the same age? Only two weeks’ difference.”
“That’s great! I hear she pumps iron. You two should work out together,” I said. “That way both of you can live forever.”
“Who wants to live forever,” my mother retorted. “No fun.”
My parents frequently say such things, as have other people I know who have beaten the actuarial odds and lived beyond the average life expectancy. As they say, everyone wants a long life but nobody wants to be old. Your world shrinks. Things you once enjoyed either no longer interest you or else can’t be enjoyed because of your physical or mental condition.
“Look what I got myself for my 90th birthday,” my father said. On the wall of his den, there were three very large photographs of stunning Pacific Northwest landscapes—mountains, rivers, waterfalls, vast and vivid, in stunning colors and sharp definition. “I saw these in a shop right after we went to the DMV to renew my license. It seemed like a fitting gift.”
My father had been afraid that when he turned 90, he’d lose his driver’s license because his vision isn’t good enough. This worried my sister and me; my father has been driving for three-quarters of a century, and the autonomy it confers is clearly important to his sense of self. He never goes much farther than the grocery store or the library, but we knew he’d go stir-crazy or worse without the ability to do these things. Luckily he found out that someone in his condition could be granted a limited-use license if his doctor OK’d it, which is exactly what happened. Our dad got his license; my sister and I breathed a little easier.
“Aren’t they amazing? I was so impressed with them that I decided to treat myself to a birthday present as a celebration.”
The fact that he treated himself to a present was nearly as amazing as the present itself. My father has always been a frugal minimalist. We had a black-and-white TV, no remote, throughout my entire childhood. There was one car, one computer, one stereo. He bragged that his shirts, which my mother had sewn, were decades old and still good. And now here he was indulging in a bit of extravagance just on a wonderful whim.
Amazing, I agreed.
Even as time, confusing concept that it is, grows shorter, people can still surprise you with their undeniable vitality. It’s not winter yet, after all.