The Age of Invisibility

People in New York are far more kind and generous than we get credit for. But not for the elderly. Not here. Not anywhere, really.
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A couple of weeks ago, as I walked past my favorite coffee shop, I noticed a woman sitting on the bench outside, holding an ice pack to her leg, muttering to herself. Bleeding. Nodding her head and rocking back and forth slowly. The blood had soaked through the cloth she was holding and was now dripping slowly down her leg, seeping beneath her torn, beige stockings. No one stopped. No one noticed. Or, perhaps if they had, they didn't acknowledge. The street was busy and everyone kept moving.

What I could have added, that would explain the solitude, the invisibility, the not being seen when plainly there, was that she was little and old. A bleeding little old woman, all alone on that bench, blood trickling into her orthopedic shoe. I stopped to ask what happened. A couple men, sort of hovering but not quite attached, said she tore her leg open on her metal shopping cart, loaded to the top with assorted bags. Looking, I saw a ragged screw exposed, shin height. They saw her stumble, got her ice, and weren't sure what to do next. She rocked, her lips moving, but didn't answer when I asked how she was. I knelt down by her feet, got in her face and asked, loudly, if she was okay. She snapped out of her reverie and answered yes, she would be fine, she was just waiting for the bleeding to stop. I asked if she wanted to go to the doctor, the emergency room, if there was anyone I could call.

No thank you, she said.

She had no one.

She was all alone.

She was heading to Waverly, which was about 5 blocks south of where we were. She was 100 years old. She lived by herself.

I checked her leg--the bleeding appeared to have stopped. I had her stand and walk a few steps, to make sure it wouldn't start again, gave her instructions to go home, wash the wound, carefully taking her stockings off, and put her leg up for the rest of the day. One of the bystanders offered to walk her there. I watched them move off slowly, her bent over, him twice her size and than ran around the corner to pick Jack up at school.

As I was pushed along by the crowds of moms, sitters, and strollers, I couldn't get this woman out of my mind. Here we were, lavishing time and attention, snacks and playdates, open hearts and attentive ears on these little beings, yet someone at the other end of the spectrum was completely alone. Did she have kids? Had she been married? Did she grow up in this neighborhood? Did she have to walk up 5 flights of stairs with that cart? What did she do when she was sick? Was there anyone at all to check on her? Would she be okay?

I remember Jack bleeding on the street once, as we ran to the emergency room. Everyone stopping to look, asking if they could help. People in NYC are far more kind and generous than we get credit for. But, in that moment, I saw, I recognized, I knew, not for the elderly. Not here. Not anywhere, really. As people get older, as their looks, their jobs, their friends slip away, they lose their power. Their resonance. Their importance. And after awhile, we don't see them.

Perhaps that's one of the reasons we fear aging and fight so hard to keep it at bay. We don't want to be the elderly man checking for the perfect pineapple in the supermarket, but not knowing how, as his wife used to do all the shopping. The widow in the laundry room whose husband died 3 months ago and now has only herself to do laundry for. The woman bleeding on the street, with no one to turn to for help.

We don't want to acknowledge that they could be us one day.

Whew. If only we could all go out into the world with a little more time and compassion for those who don't have what we do. I'm carrying that thought through the holidays. And into 2010.

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