Senescence: noun meaning agedness or the process of growing older.
This lovely lady is my grandmother Louise, who, as you can see is the picture of graceful senescence.
If nothing else, my family has longevity on its side. Louise, for example, is nearing 91, and though she has her rough days when her body doesn’t cooperate, she’s still one of my favorite people to talk to and to spend time with. My great-uncle, who is practically a grandparent, is almost 92. My other grandfolk all made it at least to 90 before bowing out, and thankfully, remained (mostly) competent and coherent throughout their senescence. May we all be so fortunate.
The word comes from the Latin sen- (old) and -escere (to grow), a root that’s shared with other age related words like nascent, adolescent, juvenescent and, pubescent. Of course, it also shares a root with words that indicate growth or becoming something else, like acquiescent. But, what I like best about the word senescence is the way it alights on the tongue, and dissipates pleasantly. It’s a charming word that relieves the process of getting older from sounding so haggard.
Indeed, I’ve written a lot about senescence because I’ve been lucky enough to know my grandparents as an adult as well as a child — and because their wise stories are often the ones I turn to when life is at a precipice (graduate school coming to an end, for example). This is an excerpt from a very mildly fictionalized memoir about my other grandmother, Dorothy, who died a few years ago:
I had not, until a few months before, realized that my grandmother was getting older. Even at her last birthday party, she’d looked young and vibrant. She confessed to me then, that she still felt like a little girl in her mind. She still felt nervous about what the days would bring, wondered how her bridge circle friends would react to certain things she said, considered how she might still help make the world a better place. “I see age on my face, I feel it when I walk, but I have not aged here,” she said holding her pointer finger to her temple so long that I began to feel like she was pressing against my head too.
But, her heart had essentially stopped working and her body was slowly filling up with fluid. It was hard to see her like this. Hard is an understatement, I know, but I cannot think of a more specific word for the total ache, the mourning that I was already experiencing. She had asked that she not remain on life support, and the tubes helping her to breathe were essentially that. I was there to say goodbye. I could not imagine leaving the hospital, walking down Houston past the Angelica where she’d taken me to see strange Chinese films when I was ten, past the community gardens that sent her into a tizzy over Giuliani’s policies. Stumbling through a world where she didn’t exist.
As though she could read my thoughts, she said, “But you, and all my grandchildren and great grandchildren are here. I will still breathe when I expire.”
I looked at her face and there was an unearthly calmness in her eyes. She smiled at me. My family had each taken their turn fighting with her about her decision, particularly my father and aunt who were holding my grandmother’s medical power of attorney. It was her choice, but one which might exist as a residual nightmare to the person who had to sign the paperwork. But, we all deemed her competent and that was that.
There’s this story my family tells: My grandmother, who dropped out of Julliard, was one of the best piano players in the world, but feared the stage. She played fiercely for hours every day, primarily at night. One evening after they’d moved to a close quartered neighborhood but before father was born, my grandmother was home alone for the night and stayed up playing. The neighbors called the police on the party next door and when they arrived, they stood outside listening to my grandmother’s music for fifteen minutes before finally knocking on the door. They apologized profusely for coming so late and disturbing her practice.
When the decision to remove the tube was finally made, we sat in the room with her and waited. She waved to us and closed her eyes. Then, she lifted her silver hands and played a ghost symphony on a piano that none of us could see, but all believed existed. For a long time we stood together, her notes resonating in the air like the remembered tone of a now mute lyre. I hope my grandmother did not take with her the looks on our faces from that moment. Though I could not see my own, I watched all the generations of my grandmother’s family cry, their softened spirits sinking. And when we finally moved, none of us spoke for several hours. As we emerged onto the sidewalk of 1st avenue, I knew this: we carried her with us in hearts all rocky with the late remorse of love.