HAVANA TIMES — My friend Ines is going through a life crisis. She feels there’s no sense in carrying on. Nothing works out for her, she’s not happy at work or home and a recent breakup has shown her she has no real friends. She says she only has me.
As I listen to her, I see a woman who looks around sixty rummaging through a nearby garbage bin. That could be my mother, I tell my friend, or either one of us in 30 years.
My friend once attempted suicide. More than ten years ago, another romantic let-down led her to take a cocktail of sleeping pills and alcohol. I took her to get her stomach pumped and was next to her at the psychiatry department of the Calixto Garcia hospital. We’ve known each other since we were kids.
If they made me choose between the fear of death and the fear of old age, I wouldn’t hesitate to say the second frightens me more. Old age has a very ugly face, Bernard Shaw once said, and, of course, he wasn’t merely referring to the wrinkles and the conditions that the years bring.
Ines doesn’t know who Shaw is and isn’t interested in finding out. She goes on telling me about her amorous torments. I ask her to look at this old lady, who does have real problems.
Growing old is terrible, even if people embellish this with pretty phrases. It’s true one can devote one’s time to rewarding, useful and beneficial things. Focusing just on that is far too naïve, one has to look at the other side of the coin, people’s day-to-day. Not everyone ages the same way. I wonder what’s in store for me.
You are no longer of interest to many younger people and your opinions aren’t even considered. You have to swallow all your bitterness, because people want joy around them. Who cares if you wasted your youth planting coffee trees or teaching people to read and write up in the Escambray mountains, going to rallies on Sundays, training for war or doing voluntary work?
An old man offers us some roasted peanuts. He wears a dirty cap and a sad smile. I buy some peanuts from him, even though I’m actually thirsty. I buy these from him because I believe he relies on this to survive. Another lady approaches us with a small dog. She unleashes him when she gets to the park so the animal can run around and pee. She cannot conceal a look I’ve seen on my mother when she’s tired or feeling pain.
My friend continues to feel unhappy. She wants to take something that will make her sleep for five days. She believes that, when she wakes up, her sadness will have vanished into thin air. She says that, if she went into a clinic, the doctor on duty would see how stressed she was and prescribe her what she needs.
I tell her that’s not a good idea, that it is better to face up to one’s problems, and that hers aren’t that serious – that old people are doing worse. Many spend their days standing in lines, eating poorly, being mistreated by the young and rejected by doctors, forgotten by their families and barely helped by a government they helped come to power.
The future will be worse. We are the most aged country in Latin America and the measures being taken aren’t enough. In 15 years, 30% of our population will be over 60 and less people will be here to hold the country up. Retirement age has gone up, one has to pay for rest homes, many medicines have become scarce and public transportation is still awful. And then, there’s loneliness. I am terrified about growing old and being consumed by loneliness. I’m not talking about being alone but knowing one cannot rely on anyone.
I look around me. Time flies and Ines continues to yap insufferably. I know it’s not the right time and I hold back the impulse to yell at her and tell her I don’t want to grow old next to such a frivolous, suicidal person.
“I’m so glad I have you,” she says and gets up from the bench. She invites me to go for a walk and we leave. We leave the old and their pangs behind us. My friend won’t try to cross over to the other side today. Today, she prefers to face up to old age.