If you believe the majority of coronavirus deaths are occurring among a throw away, older population that has already lived; is well past its use; and won’t be missed if time accelerates for them by ten or twenty years, this is an excellent time for expansion.
I used to fear and loathe older people. I feared the way they smelled. I loathed the way they moved—slowly and so fucking blissfully, which drove me nuts because I was striving for the fast moving things—success, lust, connection and fame. Until I was in my mid-twenties, older people were unknown to me and therefore unloved. But then I met my former husband’s grandmother, Ellenita, whose presence I still feel. This is how a younger me introduces Ellenita in my still-unpublished memoir, “Other Plans”:
At eighty, Ellenita is an intellectual torpedo and opinioned liberal pastor’s daughter from Mississippi. Ever since I’ve known Ellenita, she’s been in the hospital for some serious ailment or another. When she was young, she nearly died of scarlet fever so her heart is weak. Even though Ellenita’s asthma has always been terrible, Ellenita, her husband and children served as missionaries in Burma, China, and Hong Kong, the Methodist cause always coming before her own. Currently, Ellenita breathes at thirty percent of capacity.
Ellenita’s husband died young and, for the family, quite brutally and suddenly. He was diagnosed with cancer and quickly lost the battle forcing Ellenita to move her four kids from Hong Kong back to the South (Tennessee I think) where Ellenita’s sister, Mary Nell lived. Mary Nell was married to a closeted gay man. When Mary Nell found out about how her husband spent late evenings in the park, she held her vow and stayed with him even though he made no promise to change. Eventually, Ellenita forgave Mary Nell’s husband—for hurting her sister—and helped form his children.
Ellenita is restricted to a walker, but she’s unsteady, weak and partially blind in one eye. Her place her has been precarious always and yet she keeps going despite having one of those bodies that fights its inhabitant.
My grandparents are living, but Ellenita is all that I know of the grandparent-grandchild relationship. Most Tuesdays, I pick Ellenita up from Independence Village in East Lansing, and take her to the Cappuccino Café where we hang out and have breakfast. After, we settle into her humid room, which is down a hallway that smells of pee. Ellenita apologizes for the books and cards falling from her side tables, and tells me about her life. I record the stories, take notes where I can and when she’s had enough, I go home and put her life to paper.
The backdrop for “Other Plans” was a decision that I made in 2010 to read the Bible cover-to-cover and write about it. Ellenita was one of my earliest spiritual advisors, although I largely ignored her advice until I lived more fully and freely. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, Ellenita was certainly the impetus for “Other Plans.” I’m not sure that I can write well enough to describe Ellenita in an essay. I will say that I loved and respected Ellenita enough to let her influence my views on religion, which I hated, and older people, who I feared. She, and her daughter Cathe, had a contentment about them that I wanted. They were both feisty as hell, worldly in a way I could not understand, uncompromised and kind. Truly uncompromised and truly kind. Before I met them, I had never considered that women could be both. I thought our options were hard edged and successful or soft, mumsy, lame and unfinished. But they had something crystalline and to find it, I started where they did.
When I read the Bible, I didn’t understand that I needed to do it in part, because I want to be good and whole, which is how I saw Ellenita. Even though I wanted what I would now call contentment, I didn’t understand that Christianity was the backdrop of Ellenita’s spirituality. Because I didn’t have faith, I couldn’t hold, let alone contemplate Ellenita’s experience. But then I chose a harder life and was asked to do some of the things that Ellenita did like fight, forgive and forget. Finally, her lessons made sense, especially those about tolerance. I am a better, more well-rounded human because of Ellenita.
Our disregard for older people and all that they offer is one of several missteps that have put us between this current rock and hard place. I’m not saying that our treatment of older people is the reason we’re experiencing the coronavirus. Not paying attention in general has brought us here. Not paying attention to people. Not paying attention to natural resources. Not paying attention to who we are and how we give and how we take.
“Other Plans” ends with me making a series of hard choices. First, to divorce Ellenita’s grandson. Then, to move to London and jump into another relationship. While this was happening, I decided not to read The Book of Revelation. My reason? “I have faith in myself and therefore don’t need a prophecy to show my destiny.”
But knowledge can’t be here without there or present without past. Knowledge is here, but it takes something before—a person, a memory, a story, a personality—to bridge the gap between here and now. Ellenita did that for me.
Instead of pushing wisdom out the door, let’s acknowledge that we feel threatened by its insights.