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Getting old is not for sissies


When my Granny was 82 years old, she drove by herself all the way from Florida to Virginia to visit my parents. This was a trip she had taken many times before, as she and her husband happily spent their retirement years roving up and down the East Coast in a huge RV. But 11 years ago at the age of 82, Granny was a widow for the second time in her life and she was determined to retain her independence and continue satisfying her love for travel.

As she prepared for the two-day trip to Virginia, Granny worried about the pirates of the interstate who might try to prey upon a white-haired old lady driving alone. So she found herself a traveling companion named Herman.

Herman had a brown paper grocery bag for a head and a stuffed pillow for a body. His

face was made from colored markers and he had a dapper mustache fashioned from a dark

fabric. He was casually dressed in a shirt and tie with a cardigan sweater and Granny made sure that he was safely seat-belted in for the long trip north.

She put a folding map on his lap because Herman was in charge of navigation.

Having another “person” with her in the car, even one as reserved and unhandsome as

Herman, helped give Granny the self-assurance to keep living her life as fully as she was able. And I feel certain that she chatted constantly with Herman on the whole long drive. A master at the art of social conversation, Granny loved to tell stories about her life as a young bride living in McKeesport, Pa.; about traveling on the train for a day of shopping in “the City” and having the packages sent home by delivery; and later memories revolving around her home in Maryland and spending the day crab fishing with friends on a boat in the bay.

After arriving safely in Virginia with Herman, Granny laughed and told us how he provided protection during the journey, but she also admitted to his real purpose: “He’s the best listener!”

Today, at 93, Granny’s memories and her stories are becoming locked inside her declining comprehension. She lives now with my mom and dad in a small suite added on to their home. And even though she rises most every day to “do” her face and dress in carefully selected lovely clothes, she can’t remember what happened to the house and furniture she left behind when she finally moved from Florida permanently just a few years ago. Still fiercely independent and refusing to use a cane – despite a recent history of a broken hip – she doesn’t understand why her car keys were taken from her and she strenuously resents the loss of her autonomy.

Large chunks of her mind have fractured away, leaving scary and painful gaps of confusion.

The process by which we get old and faded can be torturous, with the cruel creeping

inevitability of its ending. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, much less a dearly loved family member.

During this final leg of Granny’s journey, if only I could find for her another Herman to ease her loneliness and keep her safe from the frightening unknowns hiding in the looming dark forest.

“Our journey had advanced;

Our feet were almost come

To that odd fork in Being’s road,

Eternity by term.

Our pace took sudden awe,

Our feet reluctant led.

Before were cities, but between,

The forest of the dead.

Retreat was out of hope, –

Behind, a sealed route,

Eternity’s white flag before,

And God at every gate.”


Emily Dickinson