Don't get old

Today, my neighbour Rennie died. I wasn’t there.

Yesterday I talked to Rennie across the low fence between our gardens. He admired the runner beans and tomatoes I was picking, but refused to accept any for himself. I asked how he was keeping, and he shook his head and replied, "Don’t get old. There’s nothing good in it." He patted my dog and told me again about how he missed his old labrador. He mentioned the fact that his daughter had gone away, he wasn’t sure for how long but thought it would be quite a long time. Later in the evening, though, I saw her car and knew she was visiting him.

Two nights ago when I took the dog for her bedtime stroll, I noticed that Rennie’s front door was wide open, with every light in his house blazing. I stepped inside and called his name, and when there was no reply I searched through the house for him, fearing at every moment that I would find him injured or unwell. There was no-one home. I called on another neighbour, and together we drove around the area for an hour until we finally saw him, walking slowly but steadily in the direction of home, leaning on his stick. We drew up alongside him to ask if he was ok but he seemed not to see us, so we just followed at a distance until we were sure he was safely inside. We asked each other how long it would be before he had some kind of accident, and wondered what to do for the best.

Two weeks ago, Rennie told me that he was going home soon. Then he caught himself and said that of course, he was at home. This was his home. He had agreed to sell the house where he had lived for 60 years, because it was too remote and had more land than he could cope with. This was his home now. He would get used to it in time. He knew he was getting very forgetful, and was waiting to see a specialist doctor about it. "Don’t get old," he said. "There’s nothing good in it."

Six months ago, I first met Rennie when he came to live in the house next door. He was a sweet-natured old gentleman of about 85 with a shock of white hair. His daughter had arranged the move for him. Another neighbour had told me that she thought we would need to keep an eye on him as he seemed rather frail. When I talked to him he was full of wistfulness about the wife he had lost, the old dog and the beloved house and garden he had left behind. He was no longer able to drive but was keen to keep his independence and felt in spite of everything that his new little cottage would be a good step forward. We had many interesting chats about gardening, and about the church – he had been a stalwart member for all his life, although he hadn’t managed to get along there in recent months. I noticed as the weeks went by that no-one from the church ever seemed to visit. Maybe they came while I was out.

Tonight, everything is dark and quiet next door. Rennie is at rest. I realise suddenly that I knew so little about him other than his sweetness and frailty. And that for him, there was nothing good in being old. 

Originally posted on Pat Gundry's site 2005, edited)