Last week, Irene and I went to dinner in a suburb of Honolulu with her parents and an uncle, her father's brother, who taught judo and other martial arts in the U.S. military on bases from Japan to the U.S. mainland. Emma, Irene's mom, is in her seventies, spry, easy-to-laugh (if not as easy as her daughter), and from all appearances, competent in all things. Emma had a long career as first a nurse in Japan and then as a radiology technician in Hawaii. Horace, Emma's husband and Wally, her brother-in-law, are about a decade older than her. The brothers can be equally slow to make conversation but quick to dine. Horace's hands appear to move slowly but somehow he finishes a meal before I do. Emma does her best to keep the men well-enough exercised. Irene and I drove a separate car to dinner. Waiting in front of the restaurant for the older people, I eventually saw Emma walking from the direction of a parking spot much farther away than any of the many empty slots in which Irene and I had parked. Behind her, the two, now-slight old men each made impressive time shuffling after her, balancing with their canes at every hasty step. As far as I could tell, they didn't mind. Over dinner, the brothers didn't speak much at first, until I tried to ask Wally a few questions about teaching judo in the U.S. army. Though the chatter of diners bouncing off the nearly bare walls and ceilings flummoxed my ability to understand his replies, nevertheless, he perked up noticeably making them. So did Horace. I told them about my younger brother's summer at a dojo in Korea (Bob was fourth or fifth degree black belt in Tai Kwan Do), and then admitted I'd have "run away crying" if I'd ever tried the army, which made Wally smile. Both men hear well enough.
Later in the week Irene and I came by the house again to visit and Horace was quick to say "Hi David" from his spot on the couch in the t.v. room. Wally slept in a chair opposite while an old movie played on t.v. Later though, when Irene and I were leaving, both men smiled hugely while saying goodbye to me and Wally leveraged himself to his feet to shake my hand. These men worked hard during their lives. When I see them, I see their younger incarnations entrapped within the current older casings that they obviously wear as one would wear many irrelevant pounds of chain mail. In my few visits, I heard Horace say at least half a dozen times, "we're old," by which he meant, "do not be fooled: this is not who we are."
Aging breaks my heart and not because it only happens to me. My own aging has merely made me capable of seeing the youth hidden underneath the aging of others. I understand only now why STDs are on the increase in nursing homes and assisted living centers: old people don't (only) see each other as old. They see the youth alive and jumping beneath the inelastic foreign stuff that other people tell them is their 'skin.' They can dip their hands into each other's cool running souls when the rest of us see only long-dried vessels soon to crack. I'm coming to love the aged in a way I never could before. The more I do fear my own aging the more of their green juice remains tart and bracing to me.
My own grandfather, of course, remained tart and bracing to everyone who knew him, so I'm lucky not to have inherited notions of old age that entail frailty, something that I've noticed many other people think is both inevitable and comes early. I imagine I may well go the way my own grandfather did, too: under my own steam before (late-setting) frailty too-much alienates me to myself. But, in the frailty of others who have grown old (some, by my clock, before their time), I also see the enduringly unfrail--the invisibly fit, the unseen vibrant--and I find myself aghast and in love in equal measure.
These brothers break my heart. Wally, dozing in front of one of those weird Japanese game shows which make Irene laugh so heartily; Horace, working through another dozen pages of word search games, which keep the sap moving for him in the way that motorcycling or skiing still, but won't always, do for me: Horace again, not minding the deep red scratch on his nose, which he got when he fell while walking down the block unaccompanied. These brothers demand my respect, for having the courage to smile at me, when they see my fear of turning into them in my smile, even as I think I'm hiding it so well.
We are each other's keepers.