I turned 64 last Thursday. Not so old, it seems, especially since I practice elder law. Most of my clients regard me as positively young. But this year was different. My birthday was also the day of the funeral of my wife’s sister. My wife and I are both the youngest of six children, so for us this was the first of 12 wakes, twelve funerals, two of which will be ours. My oldest sister will be 80 this year. My wife’s oldest brother will be 75.
My wife’s sister, Mary O’Malley, was an icon of the Hudson school system, a brilliant math student and math teacher who went on to provide guidance, counseling, and advocacy for thousands of children over her career, while tutoring children in math on the side, often at no charge. I cannot tell you the number of times people from Hudson have told me that Mary O’Malley saved their son or daughter. The wake was supposed to run from 4:00 to 8:00 the day before the funeral. By 3:45, there was a line stretching to the street outside. The last visitors left at about 9:00. At about 7:30, one of the many cousins came through. In her inevitably salty-tongued way, she asked my wife, “So do you think everyone in Hudson s—-d at math?” Clearly the funniest comment of the wake.
Mary died at 71, after two years dealing with cancer. The previous week, the day Mary died in fact, I attended a wake for another client of mine, a 92-year old woman who had lived in her daughter’s home for several years before her death. I told her daughter my vivid recollection of her mother on a warm summer day a few years before, sitting at the large parlor window of the daughter’s Victorian home, totally content. I told her what a gift she had given her mom. As I said it, I remembered the daughter’s feeling of guilt and resignation a few months ago, when she told me that she no longer had the capacity to take care of her mother at home and that her mom, who had recently moved to a nursing home after a spell in the hospital, would have to stay there. As I was introduced to the two other children, both smiling and both celebrating their mother’s life, I realized that I knew nothing about their mother’s past, only about her last years, a handful of her older years.
Getting old is about facing frailty and death. Death can come at any time, or course. Cancer struck my former secretary’s daughter at 35, leaving a grieving husband and two very young and very sad children. My niece committed suicide before she was 50. Death is always around, but when you get old, death stops feeling accidental and starts feeling inevitable. It starts surrounding you, haunting you, taking the people around you, your sister, your wife. At the funeral, through some miracle of fortitude, Mary’s wife Bob delivered the eulogy, a touching tribute to Mary as teacher, advocate, wife and mother. I turned to my wife and the tears welled up. I could never do what he did.