Mom and Dad both turned 95 this month, and let me tell you, they’ve reached a peace of mind and contentment that didn’t seem possible only a year ago, when I excitedly predicted both of them would die. What I mean is, Dad at 94 was an emaciated, bleached-out skeleton with sunken pink eyes, no hair anywhere, lips that stretched tight around his face like two thick rubber bands, and a temper like a wet stick of dynamite set on permanent fizzle. A typical 94-year-old in other words, although there aren’t that many of them around, maybe one in a hundred million Americans, or so I assumed. I fully expected him to kick off any minute, because how much older and more decrepit could he get? He turned grumpy as all get-out if he missed his morning Perry Mason rerun on the Senile Network, and a puddle kept forming under his chair, neither a sign of immortality. Mom was no better at that age, physically or mentally — in fact, the two were indistinguishable. Mom complained even when I took the trouble to wheel her to a sunny spot by the window like the overgrown potted plant I thought of her as, and checked her for aphids.
I didn’t blame them for being upset, either. Since the age of 85 or so, they’d both collapsed into a funk of bad health, confusion, foul smells and even fouler moods. Welcome to retirement, we’d told each other joyously years earlier, not suspecting their life of leisure would last anywhere near this long. A combination of luck, good genes, and my dutiful ministrations have managed to keep them going no matter how much they wanted to die, or how much I wanted them to.
They hung on to 95, and that’s when the change happened.
I noticed it the day of the communal 95th birthday party I had for them at home. I got a cake colored bright red from the grocer and put the numeric candles “95” on it. Though technically Dad is a few weeks younger than Mom, I only do one party a year for the two of them. That’s trouble enough, and I doubt they know the difference anyway. Before the cake I served them their standard evening meal of pork and beans and creamed corn straight from the can, when suddenly I thought I heard Mom say something. Bending down to her shrunken level, I thought she said she felt like using a knife and fork, and might even be up to some chewing. Dad concurred, saying he wanted to try the paleo diet, meat and no grains, but plenty of Okinawan vegetables and ginkgo biloba supplements with the protein. Well, you might say I was stunned. Neither had spoken at dinner for a dozen years, unless it was to call me a fat, sadistic lummox. And before I could fry them some chops or dice the Okinawan veggies the way they wanted, Mom said she and Dad had talked it over while I was at work, and maybe they’d try watching some of those modern TV shows that night, the ones in color with actors who were still alive, instead of those archaic black-and-white programs on the Dementia Channel featuring stars dead and buried.
I studied their shining faces. Was it really they who had spoken? I saw tight grins and eyes almost gleaming. Was there still a spirit in those shrunken, desiccated husks of old skin? The facial flesh was so old and brittle, the smiles might have been only frozen grimaces. I had fallen for that once before, thinking there was life when there was only a mask. Ten or so years earlier I thought I heard Al, my dad, ask if I had any porn. He hadn’t said a word. And once after that I thought I heard Marge, my mom, ask for a double vodka with a lime twist. She hadn’t breathed a syllable. Surely the sparks in those dead, discolored eye sockets were only reflections of the birthday candles.
Then Dad said, “I will start life over again as a mover. Using secret ancient Egyptian pyramid-building techniques, I will lift heavy objects and put them down in new places, for a nice price. I will rapidly construct whole cities this way. I will connect them with railroads that I alone will build with a big spike hammer. I will then employ a method, long-forgotten until now, to host biweekly keg parties and car burnings.”
And Mom said, “I will have many babies, favoring those of men who are destined to greatness. An entire generation of magnificent humans will spring from my womb, without my once being unfaithful to your father.”
You could have knocked me down with one of their pocket-sized catheters. Now that they were 95, my parents really did believe they could do those things. And then, as I tossed some lamb chops in a frying pan and unwrapped some Japanese berries, they both apologized for their uncouthness over the last few decades. They told me that coincidentally with turning 95, an age they referred to as a magical milestone, they felt much livelier, and their anger and confusion, which they felt largely stemmed from a diet of talk radio and gluten, had vanished. Furthermore, Marge had found a website dedicated to 90-year-olds on my laptop that afternoon, and proudly announced that there was a whole group of super-oldies undergoing mental rejuvenation at that age that she and Dad jibed with. There were dozens of them out there hot to trot, she said.
I sat down beside them and we joined hands. It seemed like only yesterday we were all sitting around the table looking over nursing home literature and fearing global warming together, but no longer. My parents had decided to forgo death, and along with that made a commitment to clean air and biomass fuel. We all smiled, thinking what the future held. Mom wrote in her pad, “It’s about the planet, not about us, but we’re doing what we want,” and passed the tablet around the table. Dad signed on, and to make them happy, so did I.
Mom continued the new tone by apologizing for all the racist comments she had made in the past. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” she said. “I’m not a racist.”
“That goes for me too, for all those homophobic remarks I used to come out with,” said Dad. He paused a moment, chewing his paleo chop. “But just who are cisgenders, and what do they want?”
It was true. All that hate seemed behind them now. There were those smiles again, and they looked pretty genuine.
“We’re not perfect,” Mom acknowledged. “I can’t sleep at night sometimes, for fear of what dark matter may do to our world.”
“And I still cling to Jesus,” said Dad. “I can’t get with modern atheism, but give me time. I’m working on it.”
The two seem so happy that no one mentions the obvious, that there’s no turning back the clock for them even now, not physically. Marge proved that yesterday by fracturing her thumb, so disfigured with arthritis, trying to open a can of ancestral Vienna sausages, and Al by shaking so badly with hypoglycemia this morning that I could hardly force a candy bar down his throat. They have another year or two tops, I’d say, of blissful happiness inside those horrible, decayed bodies.
That thought must occur to them too, of course, but they don’t show it. Instead they want to know if I’m looking forward to 95.
“I’ll take it if I can get it,” I answer cagily, but is it worth it? Sure, there’s a rejuvenated sense of purpose and rekindled mental vigor, but then there are those little yellow claws they wave at me when I put them in their highchairs.
Who am I kidding? Damn straight I’ll take it.