By the Time You are One Hundred — Laura Krughoff
By the time you are one hundred, you have buried almost everyone you have ever loved. One would think death and dying would be familiar to you now, after all of these years of outliving. And yet each death is its own surprise. Each death is as singular as the first you can remember, your mother’s, when you were twelve. You remember little of her illness—pregnancy, a difficult birth, septicemia, an infection that turned her nail beds blue—since you were sick with scarlet fever that winter. When the doctor came to the house to see the both of you, he told your father you were more likely to die than your mother was. You lived. Your mother didn’t. She delivered her last daughter on Christmas day and was dead before the Epiphany.
You were still so ill. Your father carried you into the parlor after your mother died, after her body had been washed and dressed and the soiled linens of the sick bed had been stripped. He wrapped you in a sodium bromide-soaked sheet before lifting you to his chest. He was a farmer, an often failing farmer, but a farmer nonetheless, and he could lift a calf or a colt so he had no trouble lifting you. You have an hallucinatory memory of your mother’s dead body, of being told to kiss her cold lips. You thought your father was going to put you in bed with the body. You wondered if you, too, might be dead. Your nightclothes were soaked through with sodium bromide. You shivered. Your own fever burned. Here was your dead mother. Death seemed pleasant enough if it turned out to be simply a dark room, a stripped bed, a cool body, and quiet.
You lived. As did the baby your mother died birthing, though that, too, was uncertain for a while. A German woman in your parish had a recipe for making formula. You do not remember the recipe now, but it involved boiling flour and other ingredients wrapped in cheesecloth until the flour turned into a brick and then grating and dissolving the boiled flour in scalded sheep’s milk. Still the baby suffered and cried after each bottle. Still she remained all head and huge eyes and spindly, brittle limbs. For one year you and your older sisters worked to keep that baby alive. She was dear to you. You loved her fiercely. She did not die. You did not let her.
Though your little brother was thrown through the glass windshield of a Model T the following summer and had his throat slit, he did not die either, which was a relief since your brother’s death would have been the end of your father. There is grief that can be born and there is grief that cannot. He had five daughters and one son. Your little sister, Mildred, was in the automobile with your father and brother at the time of the accident. She remembers—still, she is not dead, she is ninety-eight and blinder than you are and you speak on the telephone once a week—your father crying, “My God! My son!” cradling the boy in the dirt. He was stitched up. He was fixed. You and your sisters loved your brother for that, for not dying in your father’s arms.
Your sister Gertrude—Gertie—was the next death. Tuberculosis of the spine. You’ve asked doctors in the years since if that is possible, tuberculosis of the spine, or if that’s something old-time doctors made up. They say it is possible. Even now. The condition exists. The bones grew in on themselves. She gnarled up like a stunted tree and her chest narrowed. The doctors wanted to operate, to put a steel rod in there, to force her spine to go straight. She was frightened. She said, “Please, no, Father. I don’t want it. Don’t let them operate.” Eventually there was no room left inside for her lungs. You still miss her. Later—not yet, but later—you will think she has come to visit you. You will think Gertie has come to visit. Which is surprising since you were always so much closer to Mary, the baby. You were twelve and had a baby. You and Gertie and your oldest sister, Dorothy, had a baby. Mildred was too young to help. But Mary does not pay ghostly visits, not even at the very end.
But it is life you think of at one hundred. It was life you thought of, shopping with a great-niece for your one-hundredth-birthday party. You dress smartly, pants suits and sweater sets and skirts with blazers, but you wanted something special for your party. A dress. You bought a pale green dress that shimmered gold in the right light. Leonard loved you in green. The great–niece told every sales clerk at Von Mar that you were one hundred, as if she had something to do with it, but you are not embarrassed, not at this age, not looking and feeling as good as you do. You do not feel old. You simply feel as if you have lived a very long time.
You had fifty-three years with Leonard. Fifty-three years you spin out in your memory, sometimes, lying in bed on nights when you do not sleep. Each one of those years a blessing in the living of it and a blessing in the remembering. You were Depression-era sweethearts. You were working in the Tea Room at L.S. Ayers when you met Leonard. You loved being a working girl: the bustle of the department store, the clamor of city streets, the paycheck at the end of the week. You rented a room from a widow who lived six blocks from downtown, and you could come in as late as ten o’clock on a Friday night. There was plenty of time to go to the cinema with a friend who worked in linens. She said her fellow had a friend in town. She said the cinema would be more fun as a foursome. She asked if you wanted to come. You said yes.
You hoped he would love you from the moment you saw him in profile, smoking a cigarette under an awfully nice hat. He looked at you sidelong. He had wicked eyes. He could smile without moving his lips. You knew if you married him you would always laugh and laugh. You bought your own silver plate from L.S. Ayers when you and Leonard married. You expected no wedding presents and you received none. You wore blue on the day you were married, blue for fidelity. You saw no reason to bother with a dress you couldn’t wear again and white made you feel like a frosted cake. Leonard bought you a diamond years later once he had a job with Campbell’s Soup, but first there were the lean years and then there was the war and his stint in the Navy—the years without him one long black night, the radio crackling on the kitchen table, coffee burning in the stove-top percolator. Even those years you remember without bitterness. You were a lucky wife. Your husband came home. Not just in body but in spirit.
Fifty-three years with that long-faced practical joker. Fifty-three years with his strong hands and his good fashion sense and his whiskey neat and cigarettes. Twenty-three years before him. Fifty-three years with him. And now, almost twenty-five years again without him. That is what surprises you. You felt older on your first day as a widow than you feel now. Who would have thought you could have lived this extra life without him? You would not have thought you would have wanted to. Thank heavens that our young selves are not allowed to tell us how to live our old age. Our young selves know nothing. You miss Leonard, but you have loved these nearly twenty-five years—these twenty-four years and counting. You still love this long, strange life.
You have buried your stepmother and your father, who lived to be one hundred and four. You buried Dorothy, who dropped dead of a stroke at sixty, which only sounds old to those who don’t know any better. You tell anyone who will listen that the sixties are the best decade. By sixty, you had raised your child—you had one, a son, Leonard’s nephew whom you adopted—and had worked the longest and hardest years of your life. You were old enough to know what pleasure was and young enough to enjoy it. Because you were lucky, your marriage had burrowed its roots so deep into both of you that you and Leonard were like two great limbs on one stout trunk. You think of Leonard from all the years of your life, but most often, from when you were both in your sixties. Your bodies settled and solid. Your faces creased but not yet deeply lined. You think of him sitting in a wicker chair out in the Florida room of your place in Sarasota, reading the paper, looking up as you bring out afternoon cocktails. “Hello, bird,” he says. He sets the newspaper aside and lights a cigarette. “Hello, love,” you say and he pats your knee.
You do not think of Leonard’s death. What is there to think of? Emphysema. Lost breath. His flesh wasted down to papery skin and spare bone. His move from the bed you’d shared for all the years of your marriage to the recliner in the living room. Oxygen tanks. Little sips of breath. Mary came to you then. She came to you with her own thin frame and her beautiful face, having buried her last husband. She had had several of them, some of whom she might not have technically married. But Frank Pollard was a good man, and he loved your sister. When Mary buried Frank, she called and said, “Pauline, I’m moving in with you. Don’t say a word. I don’t want to hear it.” And she did move in, unpacking her suitcase in the guest bedroom, leaving her dentures in a glass by the bathroom sink at night. “I’m here to help,” she said. “I’ve been to this vaudeville show.” She cooked and cleaned and answered letters and the telephone. For the last six months of Leonard’s life you didn’t have to think about anything. You and Leonard simply sat together and talked, out on the balcony when the sun was shining, in the living room all through sleepless nights, a blanket pulled up to his impossibly narrow chest. When he could not talk, you simply sat together. You breathed. He struggled to. Mary boiled chicken and rice and made you eat. Mary told you when three days had passed so you knew when to take a shower. Mary made a hair appointment for you once a month and she sat with Leonard and held his hand every minute you were away. Leonard died in the middle of the night. Mary knew, even though you didn’t cry out. You didn’t make a sound. She came out of the guest bedroom in her housecoat and slippers. You were stroking Leonard’s yellow face, the last few wisps of his hair. You kept putting your hand to his chest to see if you could feel anything stirring inside him even though he hadn’t moved, hadn’t blinked, in half an hour. Mary sat on the davenport. You were alone with your dead husband, but your sister was there. “I didn’t know,” you said, finally. “Of course not,” Mary said. “I couldn’t have known,” you said. “No,” Mary said. “A husband is different.” His eyes were glassy. He was a body. Just skin and hair and bone. “I don’t want to kiss him,” you said. “You don’t have to,” Mary said. “Will you phone John?” you asked. “Of course,” Mary said.
Mary never moved out. You had five delightful years of being old ladies together. Those years were wonderful. You crocheted blankets for everyone you could think of—your son and his wife, your grandchildren and great-grands, your nieces, your nephews, all of their children. You painted ceramics and sewed dresses out of outrageous Lily fabrics. As a joke, you sewed matching jumpers for the two of you and for your sister, Mildred, who’d been a nun since she turned nineteen. You wore them for a holiday party one year, the three of you dressed like aging triplets. You and Mary spent the winter months at your home in Florida. You bought brightly colored swimsuits. “We look like ridiculous birds,” Mary said. “Look at our plumage.” She was a blue heron. You were more of a chickadee. “We look like over ripe tropical fruits,” you said. You wore linen shirts and floppy hats against the threat of skin cancer, but you stuck your wobbly, marbled legs out in the sun. The sun felt so good. You couldn’t help yourselves, and you loved those old legs of yours anyway. You swam laps while Mary sat in a lounge chair smoking cigarettes and reading magazines from behind amber sunglasses. You rested your chin on the tiled edge of the swimming pool and watched your glamorous little sister exhaling clouds of smoke. “You are going to die like Leonard,” you said. She would have been diagnosed with emphysema already if she had only gone to the doctor. You both knew it. “Yes,” Mary said. “That’s unkind of you,” you said. Mary laid her magazine in her lap but she did not stub out the cigarette. “I know,” she said. “I could go somewhere else. When it’s time. I could go off somewhere to die. You shouldn’t have to do this twice.” You shielded your eyes from the sun with one hand. You said, “I dragged you into this world, Mary Agnes. And I’ll be damned if you go somewhere else to leave it.” Mary nodded. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll stay.”
Every Sunday you went to Mass. Mary went shopping. She hadn’t stepped foot inside a Catholic Church since your father and stepmother brought her back from the Magdalene Home at sixteen. She was pale, and silent, and furious, her breasts still leaking. You never spoke of that time. Neither of you ever did. You never knew if Mary knew that you and Leonard went to speak to the mother superior of the Magdalene Home to see about adopting the baby. You had been married long enough to know that you were not going to have one on your own. You wanted that baby as if you, yourself, were pregnant. You wanted Mary to live with you and Leonard instead of going to the home, but your father and stepmother would hear none of it. The mother superior said it would be best for the baby if it had a fresh start, if it were adopted by strangers, if it didn’t have its past lurking in the family. Leonard went to talk to your priest, but he said the same thing. You don’t know if Mary’s baby was a boy or a girl. You don’t know if she ever held it. But Mary never went to Mass again and she never had another baby, even after all those husbands. When she was very close to the end, wheezing, even with oxygen, sleeping sitting up in the recliner Leonard died in, Mary said, “You can have a Mass if you want to. For my funeral.” The two of you were watching Jeopardy. You both had a crush on Alex Trebek. You looked at Mary. Her skin was the color of pewter. “I know it matters to you,” Mary said. “It does,” you said. “I don’t know anything about my soul,” Mary said, “but if you can get a priest to say it, I think a Mass would be alright.” Your priest was a kind man. He came at the very end and Mary let him give her the Last Rites. She didn’t go to her maker as a stranger. She went like the child she was, wasted down to the same huge head and wide eyes she started with.
You rented a little apartment in a retirement community close to your brother and his wife. He had a daughter and her family close by. Leonard’s niece and her family lived close, too. At ninety, you decided to stop driving. You visited your son and his wife in Virginia once a year. By then John’s children were long grown, of course, the boys with children of their own, although neither married his children’s mother. You wished John would do something about that, but you didn’t interfere. You just loved them, a grandmother’s prerogative. And John had his own hard row to hoe before becoming your son. You don’t remember how the boy’s mother died, maybe cancer, some long, sad illness. But you do remember the day his father died in a car accident. John was nine, the poor thing. He came to live with you, at first splitting his time between you and Leonard’s sister’s family. When he was ten, John asked you to adopt him. It was summer and he was out of school. He was trailing after you, asking ten thousand questions when all you were trying to do was dust the living room and set out the tables for a card party that night. “Why haven’t you had any children, Aunt Pauline?” he asked. You sprayed Pledge on an end table. “Sometimes two people just don’t,” you said. “Uncle Leonard and I wanted to have children, but we just weren’t able to.” The child was silent for a moment before he asked, “Have you ever thought of adopting one?” You dusted the lampshade. You could feel your face flush. “Yes. We have thought of that.” John began to rearrange the pictures arrayed on top of the television. “Have you ever thought of adopting me?” he asked. “Would you like that?” you asked. John nodded, solemnly. “Let’s talk to Leonard,” you said, and John was your son before school started. “He has been a good son to me,” you say, when you are much older, when you look back. After John died the day you turned ninety-eight, you say, “He was always a good son to me.”
John’s death is the only death you cannot look at with anything but bitterness. “A mother should not bury her son,” you say. You do not celebrate your ninety-ninth birthday. You are still grieving. By the time you are one hundred, the pain is not so searing, not so fresh. Pragmatically, you understand that at seventy-six John had lived the life most men are allotted, that he was too old to have died young. But this does not change the fact that when a son dies before his mother, that son has died too young. Such loss should not be suffered. Not by anyone.
You are tired of all this dying. Your brother died a year after his wife. Your cousins all died, various more distant relatives. When Phyllis, a favorite cousin from your childhood, died, her friend Linda traveled home with the body, sat with the family at the viewing and everything. Phyllis and Linda had been dear friends for ages and had lived together for years in a little house outside Boston where they were both professors. You suppose they must have been lovers. That had not occurred to you until the funeral. At the funeral you felt enormously sad for Linda. To have always been a friend and not a wife. The world is so much stranger than you ever thought it could be. You see that now. That is what comes from a long life. Not wisdom but wonderment. Perhaps wonderment is what keeps you going. You are a like a clock with all its gears oiled. There seems no reason for you to stop and you are curious to see what will happen next.
At one hundred, you do twenty minutes of exercises in bed every morning. You stretch. You point and flex your feet. You do leg lifts followed by arm lifts. You eat sensibly and walk one mile every day and take naps in the afternoon. You listen to books on tape and visit with friends you’ve made in the retirement community and watch the news, although it often alarms you. You telephone Mildred once a week at the convent. You will not bury Mildred. You simply refuse. Everyone else calls Mildred Sister Noel Marie, the name she chose when she entered the order, but you still call her Mildred. You might be the only person on the planet alive who knew her when she was Mildred. You celebrate holidays with your nieces, and your son’s widow visits, and though almost everyone you have ever loved has died, you are not alone. You are tired of death, but you are not tired of living. Each day something new happens.
During the summer of 2010, the summer you are one hundred, you become transfixed by the Chilean mining accident that traps thirty-three men. You learn about the accident first on the nightly news and then you switch over to CNN. You call Mildred to tell her about it, about the explosion and the collapse and the discovery of the thirty-three men so terribly trapped. You cannot imagine what the men must be experiencing—the darkness, the bad air, the weight of all that rock and dirt above them. You see on the news how a tent village of wives springs up at the mouth of the mine. You find Chile on a map in the library. It is a long curl of a country. You’ve hardly ever thought about Chile before in your life, but now you think about Chile almost all the time. NASA sends a team of experts to assist. You are riveted. The summer drags on with the men still buried and you begin to wonder how it will all end. Your nieces explain things you don’t understand. They follow the accident with you so that when you have questions they can answer them.
You don’t know what it is about this accident. You have lived through the twentieth century. There have been catastrophes around every corner in world history. Thirty-three men buried in a mine in some remote corner of South America is hardly the worst thing you’ve ever heard of, but you can’t stop thinking about them. You can’t stop thinking about their wives. Their children. Finally, in October, the experts say it is time to pull the men out. You stay up to watch the rescue on television. Night falls around you. You forget to turn on lights. Soon it is just darkness and the flicker of the television. You feel like the only person awake in your retirement community, maybe in your town, maybe in your whole time zone. You are alone, in the deepest watches of the night, witnessing the earth broken open, waiting for thirty-three men to be pulled out. Something happens when the first man is finally extracted. He is not a mining-accident survivor. This is not a rescue. You’ve all been mistaken. Men don’t live that long in the belly of the earth. This is not a rescue. It is a resurrection.
You have lived to the end of time. The graves are open and the dead are walking. “Leonard?” you whisper. “Where are you? Leonard? Come back to me. The dead are walking. Where are you? Come back to me.” This is not dementia. This is not hallucination. You have two years yet before your mind begins to slip. You have two years before you start to see Leonard and Gertie and pretty little children you don’t know and flowers growing straight out of the carpet. You have two years before your memory comes unspooled. You will be embarrassed when you tell your niece tomorrow that you thought the mine rescue was the advent of the end times, that you called out for your long-dead husband, that you sat in the dark more thrilled than afraid. You don’t know why Leonard doesn’t come for you. You keep saying his name. You are not a religious zealot. You are not a crazy person. It is simply the fact that after all these years, after everything you’ve seen, you know that almost anything is possible. “Leonard,” you say. “Please come back for me.”
Laura Krughoff is a fiction writer and essayist, and teaches in the English Department and Gender and Queer Studies Program at the University of Puget Sound. Her debut novel, My Brother’s Name, was a finalist for a 2014 Lambda Literary Foundation Award, and her current novel project follows the personal and political lives of two women as they navigate the decade between Massachusetts legalizing same-sex marriage and the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the Defense of Marriage Act. Her scholarly interests include the history of marriage, the relationship between law and literature, and the representation—and emerging effects—of marriage equality in LGBTQ literatures.