**Note from Josephine (Sheila’s granddaughter): It’s very strange and very sad and, on occasion, even a little bit joyful to go back through my grandmother’s digital archives. Her computer leaves no doubt that Sheila was busy writing and making and editing new documents right up until she went to the hospital. The most recent of these documents have only a paragraph or two written, some she even left off writing mid-sentence, and I am at once glad to see that she was so engaged with her writing up to the end and, of course, heartbroken that I will never get to read the finished versions of the three or four latest pieces. There are some wonderful discoveries–I knew, of course, that she was mugged three years ago in Washington Heights and then, at the venerable age of 83, started running after the man who had stolen her purse screaming for the police–but I did not know that she later wrote an entire short story from the imagined perspective of her mugger, a 15-year-old boy who was required to rob someone that evening as part of a street-gang initiation.
I know that this is how my grandmother would have wanted to go: in the middle of several writing projects, busy planning the next ones. I know also that her whole life long she wanted people to read and relate and respond to her writing, so it is in that spirit and in her memory that I am posting this essay, which she wrote this past summer, here on her blog.
These days I am a virtual prisoner. My treacherous body, after eight and a half decades, staged a bloodless coup and took over. Yes, my muscles, my nervous system, my glands, indeed whatever parts of me cannot think – suddenly and without warning – seized control and now they determine what I can do.
After 85 years of idiosyncratic independence, of resisting Authority, and its boring handmaiden, Common Sense, indeed, rejecting any “higher” earthly judgment (even doctors’ edicts during medical crises) I have been totally compromised. Reduced to slavish obedience. How was this shameful defeat accomplished? I grew old.
Now, my unthinking body is making my decisions and then signaling me unequivocally as to what I may or may not do. In my mind’s eye, I am still the impoverished little Orthodox Jewish girl in Brooklyn during the Great Depression, who dreamed of growing up to be a Great Writer.
Now, at eighty-five, I still do the normal things I’ve always done, though these days I hear, see, walk, all with far less skill and acuity, but I function. I often congratulate myself afterwards on a task well done, or for that matter, done at all.
Currently, exercise is never pure pleasure, not at 85; it’s real effort. Though I walk fairly long distances, it’s not for the joy of the walk. Once my limbs begin to call attention to their efforts, the esthetic dimension is lost. I can bend, reach, carry, and I do all my household chores. A caveat: I am legally blind which means I see at 20 feet what normal sighted people can see at 200 feet. So I can’t honestly guarantee that the floors I sweep are spotless, but they look clean to me. I used to remember names and dates and new and attractive words. And directions. None of that is altogether true today. Alas, my single remaining mental constant is negative; I still can’t add or subtract properly. That seems to be genetic.
My various failings try the patience of my children with their stunning instant-retrieval minds. It would be easier if they were dullards, but, alas, they are clever, which makes having a noisy, senescent mother a nuisance. Perhaps an embarrassment? In addition, all three children are addicted talented cyberites. Put a one of my offspring near a keyboard and he or she becomes a Paderewski of words. At 85, I, alas, still hunt and peck.
I think often of my dear late husband, who was the same age as I, and who died twelve years ago. We’d loved travel; thus it was a pleasure for him to pursue the fieldwork that was part of his anthropological studies and for me to come along and see the world and write novels. Perri, our first child, was born among the East Indian sugar cane cutters in Trinidad. Much later, with two children, we spent a year in rural West Bengal, living with rice farmers who had sold their land to the Raleigh Bicycle Company and were now factory workers.
We were willing and eager to go wherever there were interesting possibilities of travel and living. I remember the excitement and joy, the sense of adventure.
I do not remember the weariness. When we were young, weariness was irrelevant. Each new day we woke up ready for life.
Even during my last big trip with my older daughter, eight years ago, I sometimes was very tired – but at 77, I was never so tired that I had to forego the sightseeing or the wondrous experience. I was back in India, and I could push myself. That, alas, is no longer true.
I think of my late husband and his last years often and sadly; now that I, myself, am slower of mind and body, I realize how little I understood his earlier symptoms: the fear and worry about health and sickness, the need to sleep so often during the day, the desire to sit, to rest, the frantic dependence on a host of medications and the preoccupation with the complex schedule for their use; the sole concern with self and symptoms.
His thinking was cogent; his gentle character prevailed during that lonely time, which proved to be life’s preface to our parting.
Vivid in my memory is the singular hot day in Delhi eight years ago — during the trip with my daughter — when I’d made the barefooted pilgrimage to the top of the Jamma Masjid, the largest mosque in India. Exhausted, I was resting on a bench, brushing my dusty feet off, when a smiling, friendly, young Indian man approached me and called out loudly, “Ma, how old are you?”
This surprised me, since in my experience, Indians have tended to be private and polite. But I’ve never minded telling my age. “I’m seventy-seven,” I said, whereupon he came closer to congratulate me, putting forth his hand and shaking mine vigorously. “Wonderful!” he said and then repeated himself. “Wonderful!” His three companions, who had been standing nearby, joined us, all of them beaming at me.
Noting my bewilderment, he explained. “Ma – we do not see many women like you.” He pointed to my white hair. “We do not see them standing up. We rarely see them climbing! They are mostly lying down.” He stiffened and held his arms at his sides to suggest rigor mortis. “We are so happy to meet you!”
He shook my hand vigorously and his friends eagerly followed suit. It was a celebration!
Old age is life’s last gift to the living. As a recipient, I am grateful, though I often grumble. I need to be reminded to take another bite of my juicy peach.