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The New Old Age—The New York Times

Essay January 24, 2014, 6:08 p.m.

The Company I Keep

By JANE GROSS

The very title of this blog suggests the continual shifting of ground underneath all of us of a certain age. Whatever we thought old age meant yesterday, it means something different today.

Sixty when the blog began, I'm now 66. That's not a complaint but an indisputable fact, and with the years come my own idiosyncratic observations. Hard-wired for pessimism, one would think they would be gloomy. Mostly they aren't.

I love Medicare, Social Security, a fixed-benefit pension, senior movie tickets and even the occasional person who offers me a seat on the bus. I love caring less about what other people think of me and more about what I think of myself. I'm hoping all that eventually balances the hard reality that goals and dreams from my 20s and 30s that haven't happened yet aren't going to (Pulitzer Prizes, children and grandchildren, running a marathon).

I particularly love (pleasure and pain not being mutually exclusive) how the rooms where I live, even my nightly dreams and the conversations in my head, are more and more populated by ghosts — loved ones now dead but blessedly not "gone." They are always welcome here, and why would I want it otherwise?

"Gone" is too final. To me, it means six feet under, a memorial yahrzeit candle on the anniversary of a death, the prayer for the dead chanted in Hebrew during the period of mourning and on certain religious holidays. "Gone" doesn't mean that life goes on in a better place. To chase my ghosts away, to silence their voices — and I'm not sure I could — would be in effect a second death. I don't want them gone.

I would rather talk to my mother, dead more than 10 years but still saying the same things she said to me as long as I can remember. "Pay the $2," she reminded me just the other day, even if only I could hear — a family joke about the cost of undeserved parking tickets long ago. I was about to waste time, energy and heartache fighting for money that I would likely not get in the end. She was telling me to cut my losses.

I would rather talk to my father, himself a journalist, who died in 1973 but still reminds me that writers' block is nothing more than procrastination. "If you can't write, type," he says. Or a variant: "Lay bricks." He means that work is work, so sit down and do it.

Another often-heard-from ghost, 19 years dead of a brain tumor at the age of 53, was my Times colleague in California, he the seasoned bureau chief in Los Angeles and me the rookie in San Francisco. His moral compass was so true he only had to stare at me to keep me from taking company legal pads home for personal use. When I was on the verge, the other day, of walking off with a pen (by accident, I swear) after signing for a credit card purchase, "gone" though he might be, he shot me a look and I shamefacedly returned the pen.

These conversations are not one-sided. Recently, overwhelmed by a run of problems I didn't know how to solve, I silently raged at him. "Your job was to take care of me — that was the deal. I took care of you when you were sick and was fine with that. But now I need you, badly, and where the hell are you?"

Ashamed to be so angry at a dead person, I almost missed his reply. "It isn't fair," he told me. "And I'm so, so sorry."

Would I rather he were really here? Of course. But that isn't one of the choices, is it?

Then there is my oldest childhood friend, from the time she was 5 and I, 6. Her advice was often caustic, even unwelcome. But her taste was impeccable — mine admittedly less so — and her job was to ensure I didn't have a pixie cut when everyone else had a ponytail, or big horned-rim glasses when the itty-bitty wire ones were in style, and to buy me earrings I was too cheap to buy for myself.

Cancer almost killed her in her 40s; instead she had 20 more years. Now she's the ghost who shops with me. Invisible to the optometrist, she chose not one but two pairs of eyeglass frames, both too expensive. Never once have I regretted spending the money. And she is with me wherever I wear them.

There are others, many more. The ghosts sometimes seem to outnumber the "real" people, and that will only be more true as time passes, I know. But early January was a doozy: two deaths over one weekend, and both memorialized in this newspaper on the very same day.

Susan Rasky, 61, was my colleague at The Times. She regularly brought food when I was recovering from surgery many years ago; she took halting walks with me when that was the only activity I was allowed. Very few people left at The Times even remember her. The loss of who we used to be — and how quickly we are forgotten — is a death of a different kind.

Don Forst, 81, was my first newspaper editor, the man who made my career a reality. As he saw me through its beginning, he also saw me through its end. At 60, I pounced on a voluntary buyout yet was stunned by the loss of my job. "Get used to it," he said. "You'll feel this way forever. That's what happens when you lose what you're best at and love most."

His obituary ends with an anecdote about him waking each morning, postretirement, and designing the front page of a newspaper he no longer ran. He had told me that story many times, neither flippant nor gruff, just plain old sad.

How strange for all of us, as we age, to move into a time of life when so many of the voices we hear are of people no longer living. Yet what might be a mournful chorus is rather consoling company. We are alive and they are dead, but we are not who we used to be. There is no talking to those ghosts, no keeping them alive. Instead, with the help of loved ones who got there before us, there is a slow recognition that doors once open are now closed and that others open if you let them.


Jane Gross is The New Old Age's founding blogger and author of "A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents — and Ourselves"(Alfred A. Knopf/Vintage).

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