The worst part of getting old? Nobody knows who you are any more

Michael Harding: ‘Are you retired?’ the man asked, which caused the General’s face to turn beetroot red

I stared at the General with the anxiety of a technician watching the valve on a nuclear power reactor

I stared at the General with the anxiety of a technician watching the valve on a nuclear power reactor

 

When I was in Warsaw recently I invited Mr Squirrel and his wife to dinner. They are devout Catholics but being elderly they don’t go out much. “Why do you want to go to an Italian restaurant?” Mr Squirrel asked, on the phone. “We could stay home and Mrs Squirrel could cook some pirogies.”

He arrived at the restaurant in trepidation, his overcoat flapping and his wife gripping his elbow with both hands, like she was on the deck of the Titanic.

“We don’t go out much to these places,” he explained.

I was glad I hadn’t suggested an Asian restaurant.

The waiter was a young Ukrainian, which didn’t help their mood. When Mr Squirrel’s fork fell to the floor he asked the waiter for a fresh one but the waiter didn’t recognise the Polish word for “fork”.

The Squirrel had to speak it in Russian for him.

“He cannot even say the word for fork,” Mr Squirrel exclaimed with disgust.

“And do you know how many of them we have in Poland?” he asked, leaning over towards me.

I said I couldn’t possibly imagine how many forks there were in Poland. He frowned across the rim of his spectacles.

“I am asking, how many Ukrainians!”

And then he answered his own question.

“Too many,” he said, sorrowfully. “Too many.”

Change

Perhaps he was a racist. Perhaps he had a particular grudge against Ukrainians. Perhaps he just didn’t like Italian food.  But I sensed his fear; the terror that his country was changing, history was unfolding, and he was getting too old to cope. 

The General has nothing against Ukrainians, but he gets very uneasy when he comes nose-to-nose with young people. They offend his composure in old age. And the things he longed for in life but never achieved are the things he envies in young people as they flaunt their marvellous adventures in his face.

I saw him at a dinner recently. And there was a young couple at the table as well, talking about their wonderful life in America.

“We just drift from place to place,” the young man said, “woofing, and working from our laptops and gathering a few bucks here and there”.

There was a pause.

“Do you know what Twitter is?” the young woman asked the General. She had a red bandana around her head which he was admiring. Twenty years ago he might have flirted with her. Now he just stared.

“Twitter is great,” she explained,” when we’re on the road.”

And she described their care-free life as they rocked and rolled up and down American highways with a guitar, a saxophone, a few tin whistles and a didgeridoo.

“There wasn’t room in the car for the didgeridoo,” the man joked, “so we tied it to the roof.”

I could see from the General’s face that he couldn’t care less where the young man stuck his didgeridoo, but no one was paying him any attention.

'Confused indignation'

“Are you retired?” the man asked, which caused the General’s face to turn beetroot red, and I feared he might burst like a tomato in a microwave. He stared at the couple with confused indignation. I stared at the General with the anxiety of a technician watching the valve on a nuclear power reactor. 

“Perhaps I should take you home General,” I suggested, and he was so bewildered that he agreed. In the car he said nothing until we were at the gates of his place. 

“Did those young people annoy you?” I wondered.

“Not at all,” he said. “They were beautiful.” And then just before he got out he said – “I know what’s happening; I’m getting old. But the worst part is sitting at a table when nobody knows who you are any more.” 

And I know what he meant because many years ago I worked in Florida, and one day I went to visit an old man in a nursing home north of Tampa. The nursing home was just a small extension to a family bungalow. When I rang the doorbell a teenager in short pants answered, and directed me through a lounge area where other young people were smoking and drinking beer and watching a movie in the dark.

“Go down the corridor,” the young girl said, and so I headed down into a backroom where an old man lay naked on a mattress with cot sides to prevent him falling out. He was as thin as a cricket and burned from the sun, lingering on his back, and he mumbled at the occasional shadow that moved across the ceiling. 

When I spoke his name, he began to cry.

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