Don Gale: Old age and the challenge of disappearing

(Julie Markes | AP file photo) In this March 14, 1993, photo, Monty Hall, left, recipient of the 2nd Annual George Burns Lifetime Award, laughs with George Burns at the United Jewish Fund tribute to humanitarian Hall, in the Century City section of Los Angeles.

You grow old. Then you die. But first, you disappear.

On her kitchen wall, my mother, suffering from Parkinson’s, hung a framed cross-stitched quotation: “Old age is not for sissies.”

When George Burns was about my age, he said: “Everything hurts, and what doesn’t hurt doesn’t work any more.”

Woody Allen said: “I’m not afraid to die; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

But no one says anything quotable about the reality of “disappearing.”

I have been playing at this game of aging for quite a while. It’s a game no one wins, and yet, every day is a victory.

Old age brings many challenges, but one of the least talked about is the disappearing self. Physically, you’re still there. But no one sees you. You hear the conversation, but you’re never really a part of it.

At family gatherings, you see your granddaughter whisper to her son, “Go say hello to grandpa.” And the child asks for directions.

In a recent online response to one of my columns, the writer referred to me pejoratively as the “old white guy.” The digital dagger-wielder combined agism, racism and sexism in a single mostly illiterate sentence.

I admit to being old. I’m certainly white. And I was male before age took that away, too. However, 20 years ago, no one would have leveled such charges at me. I was much too visible to be vitiated.

That’s the way it works: The more visible one once was, the more invisible one becomes. Invitations to join boards, committees and work groups fade away. Human contact diminishes. Social rewards vanish.

As a defensive move, some of us join lunch or dinner groups – usually made up of those who are also disappearing. Members share past experiences, thus providing connections to visibility. Sadly, the pandemic put an end to such gatherings.

(I told members of one lunch group that if we meet, wear masks and sit 6 feet apart, we’ll have to arrange an in-room conference call so we can hear one another.)

Disappearance takes many forms. The mail delivery person stops dropping by. When she does, it’s to deliver bills. Even then, creditors want me to go “paperless.” That means transactions will involve the utilities, the bank and the Social Security Administration. I disappear. No trace of me.

The same with telephone calls. The only calls are never-ending robo-calls. I sometimes talk to the recording or to the young man phoning from India. I complement him on his use of English, and I offer to send him a dollar if he will call simply to chat. (It beats the three cents he gets from the phone abuser.)

Outgoing calls are equally dismissive: “Sorry, but I can’t come to the phone right now. Leave a message. I’ll call back.”

Sure you will. I hope that when I make the final call, 911 can come to the phone.

On the internet, a majority of responses take the form of so-called “emojis,” idiotic little cartoons used by millions of thought-starved “correspondents.” To them, I’m not worth even a single word.

Unfortunately, there’s little help for the disappearing geezer or geezerette – and perhaps there shouldn’t be. Someone asked aging poet/author Robert Frost, “What is the most important thing you learned about life?” And Frost replied, “It goes on.”

Yes, life goes on whether you’re visible or disappeared. Time moves on. Generations come and go. Relevance ebbs and flows.

And, disappeared or not, we hang on as long as we can. Because every new day is a gift — a day to see one more blue sky. Hear the song of one more bird. Thrill at the smile of one more child.

Don Gale.

Don Gale, a longtime Utah journalist, has no intention of disappearing as long as words give life meaning.