By Jane Barnes
I turned seventy on the twenty-ninth of December. I was born in the Brooklyn Navy Yard hospital at 5:30 AM. After I’d learned in a poetry workshop that you were SUPPOSED to infuse your writing with emotion, I found myself writing a poem about being born, about the cold, damp air, and the abruptness with which I’d been awakened (born). Where did that come from? Why have I never liked being wet, even when it was the dead of winter, and the shower was hot? I don’t know.
That was my beginning. Have I come to the end? I’ve managed to escape death quite a few times: two suicide attempts, alcohol abuse, untreated diabetes, a week-long coma following taking myself off my bipolar medicine, four blood clots (one in each lung and each leg), a breakdown and depression, laced with anxiety, that landed me for a month in a psych ward until my meds could be fine-tuned. I had a melanoma removed at thirty, my emergency gallbladder surgery, and you can see that I’ve been very lucky.
I also came out as lesbian in the mid-seventies. It wasn’t easy, though I had support from lesbian friends. About ten years later, I came out as bi. A few of my New York friends are too, and that helped. Writing about this revelation has helped not a little. I sometimes wonder why it matters, but I’m still a sexual self, I still get crushes and perceive a bit of flirtation with men and women. But seventy is still an age to die in.
I confess that I now read the Times obituaries – both to see who famous is no longer with us, or for the stories they tell, and (most importantly) to see WHEN people die. I used to be one of those thirty-somethings who considered sixty a long life, and life after seventy, nonexistent. But I want to live until 85 and calculated that that meant I would still be holding on in 2028 – a number as foreign as my birth date 1943 – at which time the Warsaw Uprising occurred with the murder of an entire over-packed Jewish community; a year or so later in World War II my father was on an aircraft carrier near the Philippines.
What will 2028 be like? Our garments will transmit all kinds of communications, diabetes will be no more, more of our bodies will be “harvested” or made from a kind of substance better than plastic. The U.S. will ration its air and water, and a Latina woman will be President. Children will attend schools that look like playgrounds. Justin Bieber will be either dead or an inspirational speaker at 28, having been in rehab several times. I will be 85.
Now, in looking at the obits, I can see that while some die between 50 and 60, it’s usually considered “before their time,” whereas some of the wording states that (s/he) died at 62 of “natural causes.” Why not die at 72 of “natural causes”? No, that’s too young. Even my mother, with serious bronchial disease, went at 78. Still, for me, too young. And what about my father who went at 72, even worse. Don’t let’s forget accidents, tragedies, unfortunate timing, daredevil acts, suicide and alcohol poisoning. What about heartbreak, drowning, born with a bad heart? And what about smoking, car wrecks and cancer? And HIV?
The real oldsters to me are in their eighties and nineties, and the number six appeals to me, so I’m going to put in for 86, but I’ve got lots of work to do on the medical front, and on the artistic. I have a blood disorder (in which I sway from bleeding-out danger to clogged veins), and a day at a time I don’t drink anymore. Saving myself from whole milk and carbs is what I propose to do next, but I fall down on that goal. Let’s not speak of the horrors of “complications from diabetes,” such as having your whole leg cut off. Your fingers. Both arms.
So I guess I should get cracking. I’ve done some good things: most of my friends are in their thirties and forties, and most are mature, and if not, have found at least a healthy track. But one other goal emerges, and that’s me and my art: I have begun at least twenty manuscripts. To cover my writing life from when I was seven to now as I’m seventy. I’ve accomplished the great benefit of artistic friends, who are hell-bent on shaping their destinies, and who may think of me as wise, as I sometimes think them foolish, but I don’t bother to say so, and they don’t, in the main, care to know.
The fact of the matter is that they jump over snow drifts, and then run back and help me through the slush. They drive cars, and they have their own apartments, cars and more or less good jobs, and some of them have discovered what comprises a good marriage or relationship. They can sit on the floor, run up hills, and work their iPhones. I think of that gesture of holding the phone up to one’s ear, with that expanse of the fingers, pointing finger stretched away from turning thumb. The distant look in their eyes. Your reward? To know that they’ve just bought tickets to a show at a discount, looked up a map of the place, found out what’s playing, read the reviews, and then get a call interrupt (a new call on top of the old call) that their normal big sister has just had her third son.
But don’t get me talking about children. I raised five of them – one was my talented cellist mother who favored housecoats into the afternoon – and this drudgery was like the best kind of birth control. My teen girlfriends all got pregnant, but I had a family to flee, and can see a story in there somewhere. No babies for me, not even any close calls. A BIG THANK YOU. To someone, maybe God, or whoever takes pity on us up there. And speaking of up there, being 70 makes me think of my higher power. She’s brought me this far; maybe she’ll give me another 50 years.
I know one thing: I don’t want to die while drinking. I already “died” when I faced the fact that I was losing a real life; maybe this woman will get that same wake-up call. OK. It’s clear. Keep me sober, make me write, make me look for challenges, and if my aged friend never gets free of her own problem, I still will stand. But I could die today, and if so, at least I’ve just written uninterrupted for four hours, in my room in a residence of assisted living.
And I’ve got assisted writing – I live on social security, enough for an ice cream now and then, and without laundry, meals, housekeeping, bed changing, and help with meds taking. I have all day to write. Why spoil it by getting an apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side without a roommate (mine is as silent as a statue), with all that trudging out for groceries and clean clothes? I may have died and gone to heaven but out in the real world there are “chores.” And this could be the last thing I’ll ever write. I want to go out loving my friends, and giving whoever wants them, my words. And later, I hope, my octogenarian and a half final words on the subject of me. And P.S.: Suddenly I realize why I like the number 86; that’s how old my dear grandmother was when she eloped with herself and arrived elegantly into the ether.
Jane Barnes has finished a poetry manuscript covering 25 years in 250 poems called “The Inbetween: Poems 1982-2007.” A short story of Jane’s (too big to hug) is carved on a granite pillar at Copley Square in Back Bay, Boston.