It’s been painful for me to read about the number of elderly who have died in senior care facilities in the past few months. Since publishing Fling!, my novel that features Bubbles, a feisty and fun-loving ninety-year-old, I’ve booked readings in senior residences. I hoped that Bubbles would inspire these older readers to share her zest for life and her unwillingness to “go gentle into that good night,” as Dylan Thomas insisted of his father in his poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” Thomas states that “Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Though many seniors move into an assisted living facility because they need extra care, some can still handle independent living quarters that often are part of this world. And it appears there are as many of these establishments as there are financial means. The tragedy is that the residents assumed their caretakers could protect them from such things as our pandemic. Of course, many workers at these places are dedicated to the people they serve. I certainly experienced that level of care when I was able to visit them. But others have failed.
Given my experience of doing readings in many of these places, I can’t help but think about the people who were eager and attentive listeners to my stories about my youth growing up on a farm, the novel and its characters, what lead to me writing it, and any tidbits I had about the writing process itself. They asked thoughtful questions about the book and about publishing.
During the conversations I had with them, I asked questions about why they read and their origins. Later, several stayed to chat with me, wanting me to hear some of their stories as well. One woman bought two copies of the novel for her daughters. She seemed sturdy and high functioning, but she told me she had vertigo whenever she turned her head or looked down, so her own reading is limited. Yet she wasn’t complaining. It was a condition she had learned to live with.
At another venue, a 96 year-old man, who looked years younger, came up after the presentation and told me that in 1943, he had graduated from the University of San Francisco, an institution where I had taught for 30 years. He showed me his diploma, written completely in Latin, a language that all graduates at that time had to learn before they could graduate. I was impressed not only by the diploma but by him and his continuing enthusiasm for life.
When I had completed a reading in Martinez, CA, an area where a lot of Italian Americans have settled, I spoke with a woman from that heritage. She told me she had worked as a secretary for 30 years at the Bank of America. At first, her boss tried to correct her grammar and spelling, but he soon learned that she knew more than he did. She had been an A+ student in high school and had mastered English. She asked him not to correct her work any longer, and he didn’t! But it was brave of her to challenge her male boss at that time, and it pleased me he had listened to her.
Each of these individuals had a compelling story to tell. I just wish I’d had the time and means to record them all and share them with readers so they wouldn’t be forgotten. I have no idea how many of these older people I met through my event have survived this pandemic. Unfortunately, Covid 19 doesn’t give older adults a lot of choice if the virus infects them. As we know, a high percentage die. But I’m hoping that many of their stories will live on to inspire upcoming generations. They deserve to be remembered on this memorial day.