One Hundred Long Years
It's not every day you get to wish someone a happy 100th birthday.
This post includes some stories from one of my patients, shared with her permission.
“Doctor, I need you to help me get to one hundred!”
It’s a command, voiced mostly in jest, that I’ve heard from multiple older patients over the years. Sometimes “doctor” is replaced with “darling,” or even “sugar.” It’s nothing but endearing.
I looked at my schedule for the day. I saw that Mrs. T was coming in around noon. She would be just 5 days away from turning 100, still stoically carrying 99 years worth of degenerated joints, organs, nerves, and memories. I was excited, and just a little nervous. She had been in the hospital recently, and we would be trying to keep her from a return trip back.
She arrived at the office on time and looking spiffy, which is more than I can say for myself most days. Mrs. T survived our grueling check in process. Although she could walk all the way back to the examining rooms, she accepted the offer of a wheelchair. Problems with her legs were among her chief complaints.
“Mrs. T, it’s so good to see you!” I said loudly as I opened the door. She returned my greeting with a big smile that outshone an underlying grimace of discomfort. We got down to business, reviewing her recent hospitalization, medications, wound care, and chronic issues. Despite obvious problems, she was doing well and recovering. Her mind was sharp. She actually helped me by filling out some of the forms she needed. We got through the visit, and made some good plans together.
One of the cruel realities of my job is that I am constantly running against the clock. It is dehumanizing and antisocial. Building relationships, trust, and mutual satisfaction is predicated upon having at least a few moments to simply talk about life. Despite being a half hour behind schedule, I decided to defy that tyranny. I slowed my pulse, and took that rare opportunity to ask a traveler from 1922 to share some stories from her journey.
“Well, I see you are turning one hundred years old next week, Mrs. T. Looking back, what would you consider the best parts of your life?”
Her reply surprised me. “My childhood was a fun part of my life, even though it was during the Great Depression.”
Poverty in the coal region of Pennsylvania. Not realizing that her family was poor. Sustained by the riches of hot chocolate with marshmallows, picking blueberries with her little sister, taking up the rugs in the house to dance with girlfriends, sandwiches when hungry after school football games, and always seeking fun amid the general gloom. Growing up to work as a secretary, and becoming a mother of three.
The hardest times were raising children. Harder than being a child shielded from real financial worries. Starting out with zero. A husband off in a World War, who never thought he could get to college, but with the GI bill investing in a generation was able to study and become an engineer. When you get me a house I’ll have children! A family income of $4,000 a year, and a new house for $10,000. The monthly mortgage payment came out to $59. Nine months later a family began. Struggles, more struggles, and joys.
Now that same little house would sell for $500,000, and her grandchildren can’t afford such a start in their young lives.
Several years ago she lost a daughter. I was her daughter’s doctor, too. I had the terrible privilege of figuring out what was wrong, and sharing that.
“I’ve lived 4 or 5 lives within this one life. It was a hard life, but I made it fun. Life is what you make it, I think.”
At the end of the visit she got up from her chair under her own considerable power. She waved off the wheelchair and we walked to the check out desk together. I’m fairly reserved in the office, but something moved me to announce to the staff: “Hey guys, can I have your attention? Mrs. T here is turning 100 years old next week.”
A standing ovation, and lightning flash of people caring.
I called her five days later, and got to wish her happy birthday for five minutes, on her thirty six thousand five hundredth day of life. Of course this is 2022, and a telemarketing call tried to break in while we were talking. I think we both shook our heads. She sounded good.
What sticks with me about older travelers is how they shine through gathering clouds, how they accrete substance from disintegration, and how they can still find joy and pleasure amid manifest sorrows and pain. The Great Depression stripped away much of what we would consider preconditions for happiness, yet a poor child in the coal region could still remember those years as among her happiest, likely aided by some parental sleights of hand, and hot chocolate. We should all drink more hot chocolate. The hardest years do seem to be those in the middle, especially with a young family and starting with zero. A democratic country that fights a World War against fascists, and then invests in itself and its people can change the world, and the individual arcs of happiness for generations.
Happy birthday, Mrs. T. There is only a slim chance I’ll know what it feels like to be here one hundred long years, but I’m honored to be a small part of your story.
As they might have said in the 1920’s - it’s been the bee’s knees.