Love after Sixty-Five or Life with a Trophy Granny
By Malcolm Sharps
It hurts writing this; for many, it must hurt to read it. But it’s a hard fact to be faced that we fall in
love far less often later in life not because of some dimming of an internal fire or a diminution of the need for love, and not because of a falling away of our susceptibility to finding an attractive other who draws us, but more because of a falling away of our own physical state which enables us to attract others. I was nearing the momentous age of sixty-five, one chosen for me by convention and law as the hiatus point between my active and inactive life, but in one sense I’d already resigned myself to retirement, from the company of women, that is. From love. At one time it didn’t seem as difficult as this to find someone. Providence it’s called. In the morning the manna from heaven is waiting there on the ground to be collected; you collect just enough and you always have enough to last you through the day, if you are not greedy. It’s there in Exodus 16.21. That’s the way it used to be; someone up above provided love; but it wasn’t being provided any more. There were problems in the supply chain, some sort of disruption; I waited and waited and when the supply was not reconnected, I decided the problem wasn’t with some outside body like a government I could kvetch about: the problem was with me: I had become old and unattractive.
An ideal place for the old and unattractive to hang out in any city is a bus stop; you’ll find enough of us there any day of the week already waiting glumly not going anywhere in particular. In Budapest, where I live, we have long bus stops for long, articulated buses; I didn’t notice at first someone standing at the stop way ahead of me. Then in a flash I saw her, one of the most sensational old ladies I have ever seen in my life. Maybe I noticed her blue-grey eyes immediately; you had to notice them eventually. I’ve established that I’m not young myself and this woman was older than me by at least five years but I didn’t care, the blue-grey eyes were timeless, which was fortunate as I was inclined to stare into them forever. In addition, she had the snuggle factor of a true granny, the thing which makes little kids want to cuddle up to old ladies and find an instant route to contentment and happiness in their arms; she had it to a degree.
We got on at different doors on a three-door bus. It felt like playing checkers advancing on my right up the bus and then stepping to one side manoeuvring myself towards a seat near her. It was one of the facing pairs and she took up the seat opposite mine. The astonishing eyes were so close now. Your eyes meet and she looks away. And then it dies, or it usually does. Both of you remain in uneasy silence to the end of the journey, you don’t dare venture a second look and it dies. But this time I couldn’t keep my eyes off her and I felt somehow she’d noticed me too and wanted to talk. I kept on staring. Eventually, it got too much for her. “Why are you staring at me?” No English woman would ever ask this directly, but we’re in a foreign country where, as you know, people do things differently. And sometimes they do things better. Such a direct question needed a direct answer, one no Englishman would normally give. It was as though the scene had been planned already and someone provided me with the lines. “Isn’t it normal to stare at a beautiful woman?”, then to leave the point in no doubt, ”I’m sure men stare at you all the time.”
Maybe it was the language which raised it above some half-remembered script from a cheap movie, in the way French can transform a shopping list into lyric poetry. But many new things are sayable in a foreign language and many new things are permissible in a foreign land. Her response, promisingly, was not prohibitive. Not in the least. We soon started a conversation where precious banalities replaced daring compliments. I was going her way to the metro, then on to the market. She was on route to the hospital where they were going to check her blood circulation, nothing serious. At that moment, I may say, no one needed to check mine. We transferred at the metro station and this time my seat was next to hers, not opposite, and while we were talking I was drawn very close by that strong cuddle factor of hers. We touched right up against each other. It wasn’t my first day here, after all, I could judge what was allowable. Nearing my stop, we exchanged phone numbers. We parted with the usual two kisses of friends on the left and right cheek: that only requires one meeting, but I departed from protocol, completing my good-bye with a kiss on the lips, an added touch which by now was a low-risk one. It had taken twenty-five minutes only to set the course for the next ten years, at least, of my life. Maybe sixty-four is not so old, after all, I reflected; even as a young man I’d never had a relationship that went off as neatly as this, like the opening of a fast-paced Rom-Com, and maybe the movie wasn’t going to be such a bad one.
So now I’ve introduced you to Éva, who has gained many additional nicknames from me since we first met: pufi, mókus, móki, dundikám. In Hungary, many men lovers get the nickname of ‘bear’ and many female lovers get the nickname of ‘squirrel’; so it was that Éva and I imagined ourselves as creatures of the woods and began to enjoy the joyful life of a bear and a squirrel together. And life was much improved all-round for both of us. Bear left the stone bed in the damp cave that he had previously occupied and found the warmth of Squirrel’s tree house where there was hot water and heating and a big soft bed. And every day they spoke about their first day. Éva said, “I have lived alone in this tree for seventeen years and I didn’t know you were so near, Bear. Why did I waste so many years like this alone, why did it take so long for us to meet?” It made Bear very happy and sad at the same time to hear this. It seemed Squirrel had lost her belief in herself when her husband had died after thirty-eight years of marriage. But Bear always assured her that the time hadn’t been wasted. “Seventeen years ago we were a different Bear and Squirrel, it might not have worked, I think we just met when it was time for us to meet.”
They enjoyed almost three years together like this and were very happy. Every day they spoke about their first day and how unbelievable the first meeting was. Life should have gone on like this, the movie of ideal love should have run on until the lead out tape from the last spool slipped off the sprocket and flapped around the take up reel endlessly. But unexpectedly on a day that didn’t seem much different from the rest, a day that began with the sun shining just like on any other day, Squirrel fell out of the tree and lay motionless on the ground.
I had just finished translating the first complete book from Hungarian I ever translated; further work ran out for a time and I went off to England to do my stint of summer teaching. Éva worked under a lot of pressure back home, just commuting took up two and a half hours per day; she should have taken retirement, she was already exhausted by her job, too exhausted even to arrive at a clear state of mind to make the decision to stop. I’d finished my class for the day when I got a call from Éva’s daughter on my mobile: Éva had had a stroke.
She had been alone when it happened. She lay on the cold kitchen floor, no one came to the house or if they did, they rang the bell, assumed no one was at home and walked away. Her daughter thought her absence was normal, so she didn’t become alarmed when no one answered the gate bell. A whole day passed, then much of the next, Éva was partly conscious on the floor but unable to move or speak. She was very close to death, no one would know about it until it was too late. How desperately lonely she must have been waiting for the final moments hour after hour. On the second day her daughter and son-in-law grew so alarmed by the fact that Éva didn’t appear, they entered the house by themselves, found Éva collapsed, hardly making any responses, and rushed her to the hospital just in the nick of time.
So began the initial two years of her recuperation, two painful years for her as a recovering invalid, two painful years for me accepting a much changed Éva. On my return, it wasn’t the Éva I had known who met me: very similar in looks though haggard and thinner, but she had lost her lightness and humour and the look of radiance in her grey-blue eyes had vanished and been replaced with a gaze clouded by suspicion and questioning. I too had become a stranger to her; she was convinced I didn’t love her. It must have seemed odd that a person she believed felt nothing for her didn’t just walk away and leave her alone. I must have been hatching some dark plot against her for later. We were like two people with imposter lovers, each waiting for the real lover to return. Éva’s wary look showed no trust in that eventuality, and I needed a strong faith myself to believe that the Éva I knew would ever come back.
In the first months, Éva’s grasp of time was at its most confused. Every number lost its fixity of value, every date, every day was systematically altered in her mind. If I said I would visit her Wednesday, she asked me later why I hadn’t come on Tuesday, if I said we would meet at two, she asked me why I had come so early, when I had definitely said ‘four’. Times, dates and numbers got turned over in her mind and the discrepancy got turned against me personally, She seethed with resentment. I had deliberately deceived her and done it only to make her life more confused than it already was.
It happened just before our first Christmas together following the stroke, she told me when to come to the house but she wasn’t at home at the arranged time. It had ceased to surprise me. I went to her daughter’s house as the most likely place to find her. Across the fence I saw Éva moving around in the kitchen and I rang the gate bell but, as luck would have it, it wasn’t working. To shout from the street at such a distance to catch her attention would arouse the neighbours. The street felt hopelessly remote from the house, Éva seemed lost to me on another planet, but looking about it occured to me the street might provide a solution too: soft snow had very recently fallen, a thick carpet lay all around at my disposal. I could make some soft snowballs and throw them against the window. They would make a sound but not be anywhere near hard enough to break the glass. This is what I did, and Éva turned towards the thudding sound, showing that expression of resentment and dismissal that I’d got to know well. Her personal ogre had come to torment her even in this retreat and now he was trying to break the windows to get to her. In annoyance, Éva glared at me and went back to her task. She had no intention of letting me in. Not even if I froze into a block of ice waiting out in the cold.
By Christmas day, I was partly forgiven; distantly Éva was aware that this was the season of goodwill and she should make some concessions, so she invited me for Christmas. That Christmas night was perhaps the beginning of Éva’s emotional recovery and regaining of her trust in me. I held her and she was the most tender towards me that she’s been in many months. She even allowed herself to smile at the comments of mine she no longer found very witty. Towards the approach of midnight before Christmas day, I walked into the bedroom where she was like a child at prayer kneeling in innocence by the bed. But it wasn’t that at all, Éva never prays. It’s simply that climbing into bed she’d slipped and missed and, being determined to do it alone without calling for my help, had tried desperately many, many times until now she didn’t have any more strength in her body to lever herself into bed. When I tried to lift her, she was almost too heavy for me to help. But there was only me. So I kept on pushing until somehow it was done. Now we both lay panting and exhausted on the bed. But we were together, at least. And I felt a little of the Éva I had known had returned and was emanating from her close beside me. I knew then that she would slowly continue her revival until the return was complete. Happy Christmas, Éva! It was one of the happiest for me.
There were other moments which occurred and I asked myself ‘’what will happen the next time if I’m not around?” Like the time when she tapped with the long handled back brush on the bathroom door to indicate she was in trouble. The door was not locked and when I entered I found Éva had fallen over in the shower and she hadn’t enough strength to raise her own dead weight up again. I encircled her with my arms, feeling like one of those dolphin handlers in a Florida aquarium as she slipped out of my grasp. I tried again, she slipped again. I had to learn quickly and dried her off before I tried one more time, trying to pull her back on her feet while her body offered no help of its own. I cannot recall how I finally got her standing again: all that I know is that she is not still there now and I am here. If the thought should occur to you as you struggle with the body that has gone to jelly and won’t obey your wishes, so that you are ashamed to realise your own pathetic impotence and lack of strength: “did I sign up for this?”, then maybe love is not really for you, and maybe a real woman is not for you either. I wasn’t trying to be some super-Catholic bearing my cross with joy, it never entered my mind to question what I was doing; I just thank God that someone who loves Éva as much as I do was able to help, not someone who would go through the motions of caring and inwardly resent the fortune she had brought him.
Although her stroke has aged her terribly, Éva is that rarest and most beautiful thing amongst women, a beautiful woman who doesn’t know she’s beautiful. When I sometimes call her ‘my filmstar’, she gives me a look of amused incomprehension; what is this man talking about? But I find it sad in a way that she is unaware of the aura of magic surrounding her which I see. For nine years now, Éva has been my trophy granny, my prize to show off to the rest of the world. By this time, I have to say, I’m certain nobody is watching to express their admiration and approval, no one is burning with envy of me, wishing he could take my place. I am the only one watching. If Éva has anything to display, it must surely be to me. What she shows me is that love and passion and adoration are possible right up to the very last moments of our lives, we simply need the courage to express it.
Love later in life. It makes us happy and sad at the same time, as nearing the end of something that was beautiful must do. We want to believe that through the strength of our convictions life will be good to us and grant us the reward of many additional years and freedom from pain; but it is not so. Éva might have another stroke at any time, or I might be the one to suffer next; in a moment it might all be over for either of us, who can say? Meanwhile, Éva and l remain true to our chosen parts as Bear and Squirrel, we watch out for each other daily; we protect and care for one another when there is no one else. In the woods of our imagination, we frolic and play and try not to think of the dangerous world that surrounds us. The life Bear and Squirrel have made together seems so idyllically happy and joyous, we pull off the let’s-pretend so completely, at times we ourselves are convinced into believing that it can’t possibly ever end.