For every age, loss carries weight, but for those who have grown old, that loss can also contain the crushing knowledge that their time is running out. The march is not optional, we know this, but the elderly know it best of all that the hours always move on, counting down the time we have left. For some people, this can be a point of tremendous inspiration, the time when they finally grasp the Latin phrase, “carpe diem,” – seize the day – and treat what time they have left as a gift to be treasured. Others recoil in horror from the approaching abyss, fighting fiercely against its inevitability, “burning and raving” at close of day, as Dylan Thomas wrote, raging against the “dying of the light.” Some try to fight their mortality by growing steadily more vigilant for any sign of illness or disease, growing fearfully obsessed with bowel movements and other bodily functions, arming themselves with nuggets of information gleaned from supermarket tabloids and cable shows on causes and cures. Others become more religious; clinging to faith with bones and beads, anxious to cut deals with God to at least ensure a good seat in the afterlife.
At a station I worked at in the south, there was a story involving a family that was suing a church to return their mother’s money. It seemed, on the surface at least, a simple matter of black and white. As the woman had grown older and ill, her children lived far away and she had become dependent upon her church. The preacher and congregants would come to visit her, bringing her meals, helping her with her doctor appointments, picking her up for Sunday services. When she finally died, the family discovered to their horror that their mother had left the church everything, including the family home. At a tearful news conference, the children claimed the church had exploited their mother’s poor health and loneliness and that all the visits the church members paid to her were merely part of a game they were working to get their mother’s money. They showed the reporters family photos of all of them together, their mother beaming lovingly at her children.
But the church denied the family’s charges, saying that it was the children who had abandoned their mother, leaving her behind as they chose lives elsewhere, leaving her alone with her husband dead and her children several states away. The pastor of the church spoke movingly, asking that if the old woman found that her true family was the family of their church and they took care of her at the end, then why shouldn’t they accept the money to help continue their work with others?
I moved away shortly after that; I don’t know how the case ended. But it’s just as well, I would have probably been disappointed no matter which side won. I just know I left the news conference that day aware of how much gray separates the black and white in our reporting, and feeling like there was probably truth to each side’s claims.