The 90-year-old woman used to protest in the streets. She didn’t do that anymore. It wasn’t that there was nothing to protest; it was more that there was too much. There was everything to protest. There were walls everywhere she wanted down, but in the end the walls would stand. One would fall, another would be raised. Hers was an unknown protest, but I found out about it at the end.
I was walking past her house one day when she chucked her T.V. out on the lawn. I was a senior in high school and would graduate in a month. My gated private school was in the poor neighborhood so I walked through where she lived every day. I saw her before she saw me. She was getting ready to swing a wooden baseball bat down on the T.V. She looked back at me, her eyes were tiny dancing balls of strangely disarming rage. I had never seen someone so old so mad. It seemed to me that old people never really got mad, only irritated, which was boring and irritating to me. But madness, true madness, in every sense of the word, was rarely boring, especially in the old. I stood staring at her like that for what must have been five minutes.
As she stared back, the madness slowly ebbed away, though not completely, and her face started to flow naturally. It was an interesting face; it seemed to express everything all at once. It was ironic but not detached, open but questioning, almost ecstatically joyful and at the same time deeply sorrowful. It was not an old face. She was old, her face looked young; when she was young, I got the feeling her face had probably looked old.
After the longest time I’ve ever stared into the eyes of a 90-year-old woman, she asked me what my name was.
“What are you doing, Brad?”
“I’m walking to school.”
“No, you’re not.”
“No, I’m not.”
“You’re staring at me.”
“Yes, I’m staring at you.”
“Come in, Brad.”
I walked in. The room looked nothing like I would’ve expected it to. Then again, I had never thought about what a 90-year-old woman’s room looked like. But if I had I wouldn’t have thought of this. There were nudes on the walls and countless bottles of wine and gin on the floor. There was no bed, no furniture, just a thin light blue pad on the ground, a desk, and a typewriter. So this is what the house of an ascetic alcoholic 90-year-old writer looks like, I thought. The window looked like it had been recently busted open with a bottle; from outside I could hear birds singing and cars honking.
She asked if I wanted some gin, and I told her I didn’t drink. She asked again, and I told her again.
“I think you should have some gin, Brad,” she said.
I watched her as she poured the drink. I didn’t know anything about drinks, but I could tell this was a strong one. As she poured it, I wondered how she was still alive. I thought of trees after storms and shores after hurricanes. She practically forced the drink into my hand. I took a sip.
“What’s your philosophy on life, Brad?”
That took me by surprise. I had never taken Philosophy on Life; my school didn’t offer that. I took another sip and prolonged the sip. No answer came to me, so I answered honestly.
“I don’t have one, I guess. They haven’t taught me that yet.”
“No, they wouldn’t. What have they taught you?”
“Oh, all sorts of things. I’ve learned about the founding of America, I’ve memorized the periodic table, I know about trigonometry and calculus and biology.”
“That’s good, Brad. Br is for Boron.”
“Wow, that’s right.”
“I’m not a moron, Brad.”
“I didn’t say you were.”
“I’m going to die, Brad. I’m 90 years old.”
“Yes, I suppose you are. This drink is good.”
“Yes, it’s a good drink. Before I die, I want to teach you what can’t be taught.”
“Alright, teach me.”
She laughed. I laughed too because her laugh was infectious, although I didn’t know why she was laughing. She had a wild laugh. There was something courageous about it. It came from deep within, and was let out slowly, building up into a raucous climax that seemed more like a beginning than an ending. It brought me in, allowing me for a few moments to experience the world together with her. We were over seventy years apart; we had just met. It didn’t matter. Her raw, joyful laugh connected us like deep sorrow. We were intertwined and I understood that so were sorrow and joy.
I had to go, I was late for class.
“Come back tomorrow,” she said.
The next day from outside her door I heard symphonic music coming from inside. I walked in and she was dancing. Dancing! I couldn’t believe it. She moved with rhythm, every part of her in synch until there were no parts, only unity. She didn’t notice me; her eyes were closed. She whirled, tiptoed and twirled; she swayed; the music seemed to enter her and she held it inside, letting it out slowly, letting it out as she took it in, taking the music in fast as it sped up and then letting it out at the same speed. The dancing was passionate and powerful like the startling lucidity of a dream that grabs you and shakes you awake. It felt real because I felt alive while watching it. Just because a thing was dream-like didn’t mean there was no reality to it.
The dancing was all the more powerful because of the expression on the old woman’s face. It took me a while to define what exactly she was expressing, not just with her face but also with the movements of her whole body. Perhaps what she expressed resisted definition and definitive analysis. Her movements went along with the movements of the symphony. When the symphony became calm, and this was rarely, there was something in her slow swaying that made me think of the swaying of a lone tree on a mountain just before an earthquake or an avalanche. The tree struggles as uncontrollable forces around it threaten its life with their power. It is the only tree left and it is strong, it will go out on its own terms. It will die when it is ready. It moves so as not to be moved, it sways so as not to be swayed, it holds on desperately to its roots by letting its branches shake wildly in the wind.
That’s what it was, if I had to define it. She was expressing desperation but without any corresponding despair or anxiety. Her desperation came from a celebration of life rather than a fear of death. The tree is calm when all is calm toward it, but when threatened from the outside, it reveals its strength. It becomes resilient, unmovable. When threatened with death, it shows how much life it has left. It is ready for the end, but the end is not ready for it. It has too much of beginnings in it, too much of spring. Winter shudders to look at it.
I realized that my schooling up to this point had been hopelessly inadequate. You could not be taught how to dance like this old woman because you could not be taught how to be this alive. What truly mattered was to be alive; you couldn’t be taught what truly mattered. Was this what she had wanted to teach me?
The music stopped. She opened her eyes and looked at me.
“Come close,” she whispered, her eyes dancing.
She was lying on the blue mat now. I went over and kneeled down.
“What is it?” I asked. “What do you want me to know?”
“Nothing, you already know. Now you just have to find it.”
“Some gin, Brad.”
I poured her a half-pint glass, straight. She drained it in one swallow. Then she launched the empty glass at the window a good 15 feet away with what seemed to me to be impossible strength, shattering the glass and laughing. Was she courageous or was she insane? She looked at me again. She was no longer smiling, on the outside at least, but her face was not hard. Nor was it resigned or complacent. There was that same expression: a celebration of desperation without fear or despair.
You could go out feeling secure, you could go out feeling resigned, you could go out feeling helpless or hopeless. She wasn’t going out in any of those ways. She was going out desperately. It wasn’t the same as helplessness or hopelessness. I knew nothing of her life. Her experiences were her own, but she had loved them. She had grown from them all, good and bad alike. I could see that; I had seen her dance. Like the tree, she was holding on to her roots by letting her branches go. And her branches had always gone wild. She motioned me to come still closer. I leaned in. She looked at me once more.
“Find a reason to dance,” she said.
I watched as her eyes, dancing to the music of Death I could not hear, closed for the last time.