I used to think that elder love, if it even existed, was confined to rocking chairs or golf carts, that it had to be a dull business because of the physical limitations of age.
Failing memory would make interesting conversation impossible, and old people didn’t seem inclined or able to participate in the lovely stuff of love – sadly, because what better way to get through that wretchedly boring, painful and terrifying period we call our golden years?
So I certainly wasn’t looking for love when I met George. At 83, he was recently widowed, and I was a long-divorced 71. We were sharing a country house in the Catskills with some other codgers who were mutual friends, and he intrigued me despite myself.
He seemed to have good health, except for a little diabetes. He had a cane and could still walk – a block or so. There were false teeth, identified by a golden stud that appeared at one side of his disarming smile. He had most of his hair. Best of all, when he talked, it was worth listening to.
George had traveled widely, lived in several European countries, declared himself a socialist, once owned a house on a Greek island, had opinions about everything and remembered most of what had happened to him. As for me, I could still walk without a cane, had just published a book, and my friends told me I looked young.
Things moved apace, and it wasn’t long before I had moved into his house in the Florida Keys. I’ve always been impulsive. Why not? My children and grandchildren were far away, and my lease was almost up. By then I found George impossible to resist.
What astonished us was that the electricity we generated was as strong as love had been 50 years before, that it scrambled the brain every bit as much. Yet more surprising was that we had a rousing and delightful sex life. The few obstacles seemed easy to get around, and we spent a lot of time in bed or skinny-dipping in the secluded pool.
I didn’t really wish I had met him at 25 or 30; he liked women far too much and believed in “open marriage.” He was still an indomitable flirt. Without the physical limitations of age, I suspected he might have wandered off after some 60-year-old.
When my head cleared a little, I had reservations about this early retirement. What was I, a lifelong New Yorker, doing in Key Largo?
His friends, for whom George acted as a kind of adviser, were a curious bunch: felons, Vietnam vets, troubled souls, child molesters and people on the run.
They repaid him by fixing things and transporting things and bringing fresh fish. I wondered if George had some felonious dark secret, but though he was rebellious at heart, he seemed to have stayed within the law.
An auto adventure
After a year, George sensed boredom coming our way, so we got into his white Mitsubishi and set off to visit family and friends, a dozen or so in 10 Eastern states. It was a trip to test the stamina of people half our age, and it revved up as we got near New York.
George, who had been doing most of the driving, began looking ill. In the middle of a gathering at our borrowed apartment, George had a stroke.
I knew that he should go to the hospital immediately, but it took almost 24 hours and a persuasive doctor to get him to agree.
He didn’t like Lenox Hill Hospital, where his stroke had been designated “small.” He demanded to be taken back to the hospital in Key Largo.
Back in the Keys, George was installed (protesting) at Plantation Key Convalescent Center. I was secretly relieved; he had been driving me crazy.
When I went home to recharge, John the felon said: “Sweetheart, we’ve got another problem. A big mean sucker of a hurricane is aimed straight at us.”
Every day I drove to see George at the center, weather report turned on high, until I rear-ended somebody, totaling the beloved Mitsubishi.
I had told George I would stay with him when Hurricane Wilma struck, but by then things were out of our control; we had been ordered to evacuate. I would be allowed to come along on the bus to a facility in North Miami.
When it was all over, George said he was fed up with the place and wanted to go home. Back at the house, George said, “I feel like killing myself.”
I burst into tears. I told him his timing was terrible. We had gotten through all the disasters intact. Our brains were still working, more or less. What was the matter with him?
“What do you want?” he asked.
“I want to take naps, be bored, read the paper, ride in a golf cart. I can’t take this life anymore. I want to get old like a normal 72-year-old.”
The last adventure
He looked at me with impatience. “You’d last about two weeks,” he said. “Why don’t we move to New York?”
Couldn’t turn that down. So we did. But we were not what we had been. George had never fully recovered from his stroke. He needed a scooter chair. I needed a cane for my back pain, probably from sitting hunched over a typewriter or computer for the last half-century.
In New York, we went to a lot of doctors. George was always cold, he missed Florida, and he didn’t want to go anywhere. His passionate curiosity was ebbing. New York was hard for a lot of reasons. It was no place to sit and be bored. It wasn’t working, and neither of us admitted it. I got worn out taking care of him.
Four years after we moved to New York, and seven years after we met, George died. Old age, I was told. His life had been filled with adventure, travel and women. He left two sons and four grandchildren.
He had said I was his last, loveliest adventure, and he brought joy and magic to my life. He died when he was 91 and I was 78. Only then did I start to get old.
Nora Johnson is a novelist and memoirist in New York.
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