5:12 AM and I am, as usual in this last year, wide awake. Two hours sleep. Part of the new me.
It’s not by choice. It is one of the many changes I am learning to adjust to after fighting an ugly, losing battle with Father Time and the other arch foes who inhabit my world and run my life nowadays. This sounds pessimistic and unlike the woman who so often writes upbeat little stories about “The View From Carole’s Treehouse🌲” and her beloved cat, Lovebug🐞. It is not without trepidation and self-doubt that I have chosen to share these thoughts and observations. So why now?
It occurred to me — a gradual but insistent feeling — that there are thousands or more people who feel the way I do and experience the same or similar daily experiences. People who are reluctant, or worse, frightened, to talk about them. I am referring to those of us who are growing old, facing unexpected, harsh, health and lifestyle changes and doing it alone.
I do not for a minute mean to diminish the challenges of aging for everyone. In our society wealth, power and connections ease the way. Some are learning the value of advanced planning. But the majority are left in a tidal pool of necessities for which we are poorly equipped, financially and emotionally. Tumultuous times such as these exacerbate the problem.
I was born an only child into a troubled family. Mental illness and violence were the norm. My mother beat and sexually abused me. My father, son of a Russian immigrant who committed suicide when he was only 7, chose a traveling salesman job to avoid the problems at home. Severe depression was the norm.
I developed coping skills at an early age. Mostly, they involved running away — physically or with the aid of fantasy. I had a beautiful life sitting in my “quiet places” traveling to far away lands, and as I grew older, with the man of my dreams and perfect friends. To this day I conjure up sweet “mind movies” when I face pain or sadness. Many will say that I “run away” from my problems. Perhaps. Would my life be different if I boldly confronted my demons? Would I have married, had children and a successful career?
I never really questioned my coping skills. I never confronted my disappointment with the nagging feeling that I could have been more, done more, seen more! Instead, my insatiable appetite was satisfied with food and traveling alone. I saw more of this glorious world than most people, and have albums filled with my adventures on my bookshelves. And there are photos of people I met too. Yes — I said people! I became an outgoing, confident woman who never had to confront loneliness in a foreign country. I was the ultimate two- or three-week companion. Young, old, married or single, no matter their country of origin or native language, I was the always ready for adventure, fun loving, dependable leader of the pack. Until we left on the last day, tearfully saying goodbye and exchanging phone numbers and addresses so we could stay in touch and meet up again. Those pieces of paper were largely gone by the time I finished unpacking.
I chose jobs where travel was a necessity and the work never routine. My favorite was as a Global Human Resources Director for one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies. I usually dressed in jeans, wore a hard hat and climbed storage tanks. I frequently sat with my boss at lunch at a decrepit old picnic table watching the ships sail up the river, loading and unloading their cargo, the sailors sweating and cursing, and loved every minute of it.
Then…suddenly…that part of my life was over.
I was 70 when I retired. I had not done any of the “life planning” people talk about. It took nearly 6 months for me to start over. Who was I? What was I? I found my answers – well, some of them- with a circle of 6 women. Friends. My first.
We met at a class at the JCC. They had known each other for years. All of them were married, had children and grandchildren, comforted each other in hard times and celebrated the good ones. For some reason, they embraced me — someone so different in background and experience. I learned how to be part of a whole, how to enjoy listening to stories instead of always being the storyteller. I went to family dinners, Bar and Bat mitzvahs, simple events and unplanned ones. I learned how to listen without getting bored. How to be a helper instead of a leader. How to stay to the end. I was with my friend Margie the night before she died and told her I loved her. I was with Marlene at her bedside until she took her last breath, adjusting her pillows and blanket. Over the following two years I said a final farewell to the others. All of them but one had died. The last one moved to Florida.
The thought of starting over again was daunting. I was no longer the bold woman traveling alone but a small, frightened older woman who was lost. My health deteriorated. My confidence was gone. And for the first time in my life I felt “lonely.” It was different from “alone.” I chose to be alone. Loneliness was an intruder.
It was on one of those lonely days that I found her.
Her name was Ronni Bennett.
Ronni founded, wrote, edited, published and largely funded Time Goes By, the first successful seniors’ blog. But it was more than that. It was a community, a safe haven, an experiment that became iconic.
Ronni was a radio and television broadcasting veteran who produced successful shows: 20/20 and the Barbara Walters
Specials on ABC, programs for Lifetime, NBC, PBS,and CBS. She was the first managing editor of CBS News.com, the first digital program of its kind. After producing shows for Barbara Walters, John Tesh, Whoopi Goldberg and Matt Lauer she was “aged out” — the term used to describe the firing of employees who had reached “a certain age”.
Ronni was a force of nature — a whirlwind who gathered up in her orbit a diverse coalition of women of all ages and some men as well. If you were interested in the truth about growing old, the good and bad without mincing words, she was your gal!
She could be bawdy and sophisticated at the same time. Her knowledge of history and personal experiences with the greats of her day made her a veritable living textbook devoted to the women’s movement and other important social issues of the time.
But it was her sense of humor and love of life that set her apart. It was not unusual to see her walking in the park, singing loudly, picking wildflowers. Or on the back seat of a famous movie star idol’s motorcycle laughing madly and waving wildly as it flew down the streets of NYC.
Time Goes By saved my life. Perhaps it is more accurate to say it returned me to life. I read every one of the back issues, sometimes fascinated, sometimes enchanted, and sometimes appalled by the topics Ronni tackled and the honesty she employed to describe them. I had begun writing myself just a year before, chronicling my experiences with growing old — I called it “The View From Carole’s Treehouse” — the good, the bad, the happy, the sad and the quirky things about growing old. It was my way, a loner’s way, of blowing off steam about the challenges of growing old. Just a few paragraphs long, but hours to write. I found myself longing for feedback — did anyone else feel this way? I set up a Facebook account and posted my first bit. When a few people responded and shared their experiences I was thrilled. And hooked.
Ronni had opened her blog to readers who wanted to share their experiences and opinions. I read every one…hungry to find other people who were struggling to “age gracefully.” A few months later I gathered my courage and wrote to Ronni. I wanted her to hear how much Time Goes By meant to me. I was surprised, amazed, thrilled and incredibly grateful that she wrote back, encouraging me to keep writing and telling me that when I had something I was confident was my best, to submit it for publication. I did. She wrote back. It was not strong enough to publish, but it showed great promise, she said. Then, she went on to list the things I might do to make it better! I could hardly believe it. I rewrote that little piece three times and Ronni returned it each time with notes for improvement. It was never published, but it allowed me to share my feelings about growing old, especially my fears, with someone I trusted. And so, as the years went by, our correspondence became more personal. And seven of my little essays were published over the years!
Ronni began to write about her failing health, visits to various doctors, changes in her appearance and lack of energy and frustration with the condition that kept her from doing the things she used to do. All the while, she lived life to the fullest she could. Her sense of humor never faltered as bad news and faulty diagnoses mounted. She chronicled them with honesty. Sometimes it was hard to read, but it was a series of lessons on how to live until you die. Which she did.
At the age of 77, Ronnie finally found a medical group that was able to give her a definitive answer. She had Stage 3 Pancreatic Cancer. There was no cure. She had 6-8 months to live.
Undeterred, Ronni continued Time Goes By daily as before. She wrote with heartbreaking honesty about subjects that aren’t usually discussed.
“Dying is the last great adventure we have — the last part of life. I want to experience it as it happens”.
And she did. And those of us, devoted readers,did too.
Three days before she died, Ronni wrote about her last adventure as a dying, feminine and funny woman. She had become incontinent, a condition she found impossible to accept. With her nurse as co-conspirator (a remarkable woman who became a good friend) Ronni began to search for a solution. She found it but told no one.
It arrived in the mail. The nurse brought in the mysterious package from San Francisco. She watched intently as Ronni slowly opened it — teasing and laughing. “Help me out of this bed” she instructed. Worried about her frailty, the nurse tenderly and gingerly lifted her and placed her on her feet. Standing beside the bed, Ronni looked like a doll. Her eyes were bright, her voice strong. She opened the package slowly, making the most out of the suspenseful moment. Then, with a flourish and a giggle, she removed the contents to reveal a beautiful pair of frilly pink lace panties that were designed to accommodate her need to stay dry!! Parisian underwear fit for an incontinent Princess!! The Nurse gasped and then, broke into laughter! The two women managed to set her in front of her full-length mirror, Ronni holding the underwear above her head and then in front of her face. She began to dance, a remarkably good imitation of a sultan’s favorite concubine! The nurse joined her and soon the two women were swaying in unison to the same silent music. It lasted for just a few moments, but the performance will last forever somewhere, I am sure.
Three days later, on October 30, 2020, Ronni Bennett died.
Four months ago I had a heart attack. It was a serious one. I spent 10 days largely unconscious in intensive care with a greater chance of dying than living. I am blessed. With only a 40% chance of survival, I made it.
I think of Ronni almost every day. She taught me how to live and how to die. I don’t have the frilly underwear but I have my sweet cat, Lovebug🐞.
We dance together every day.
Carole Leskin is a retired Director of Global Human Resources. Embarking on a second career as a writer and photographer concentrating on her personal accounts of aging, her essays and poetry, frequently accompanied by her photos, are published in Jewish Sacred Aging, Jewish Women of Words, Starts At 60, Navigating Aging ( a Kaiser Health publication), Women’s Older Wisdom, Time Goes By and Next Avenue. Her poems, “Father Time” and “Carole’s Debate” were selected for inclusion in the 2019 anthologies of poetry, New Jersey Bards. Her photos have been featured in Mart R Porter Nature Forum.