Notes From the End of a Very Long Life
With the death of Ruth Willig at 98, a Times series on a set of the oldest New Yorkers — chronicled over seven years in 21 articles — offers their lessons on living with loss.,
With the death of Ruth Willig at 98, a Times series on a set of the oldest New Yorkers — chronicled over seven years in 21 articles — offers their lessons on living with loss.
In late October, when the weather turned unseasonably warm, I called Ruth Willig to ask her to lunch. Ruth was almost 98, in an assisted living building in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, so when she didn’t pick up for a few days, I worried. Finally, she answered and said that someone at her building had tested positive for the coronavirus, so everyone was under lockdown for at least two weeks. Lunch, alas, was not possible.
It was to be a very difficult autumn.
Ruth Willig — retired microbiologist, mother of four, self-described “feisty old lady” — was the last survivor among six older adults I started writing about in 2015, in a Times series about people age 85 and over, one of the fastest-growing age groups in America. I planned to follow them for a year and then move on — one of many assumptions that proved wildly wrong.
The youngest of them, Fred Jones, a World War II veteran with a flashy wardrobe and an amorous mind, was the first to die, in April 2016; he was 89. The oldest, the filmmaker and writer Jonas Mekas, died in January 2019. He would have turned 100 this year. Ruth took each loss harder than the last, even as she felt some accomplishmentin being the last one standing.
And she kept on. Since the start of the Times series, she had become a great-grandmother, made a new best friend, saw two of her children retire and declared an end to summer vacations at the Jersey Shore with her daughters. Her life after 85, like the others’, had its share of setbacks, but she was not defined by them. Her Christmas cactuses were the envy of anyone lacking abundant sunlight.
Soon after our abandoned lunch date, she struggled to breathe and was rushed to Coney Island Hospital, where she stayed for 10 days, receiving treatment for congestive heart failure and a raging urinary tract infection. From her hospital bed, she said she was determined to hang on until her birthday, Nov. 11, but did not think she would make it until the end of the year.
She was right on both counts. She died in her home on Christmas Eve, waiting for the moment her two daughters left the room.
Journalism tends to look away from people at the end of life, especially at the undramatic end of a long life. Very old people are rarely winning pro sports titles or running governments or businesses, setting consumer trends or even following them. Aging may be an ordinary bodily process, but like other bodily processes, it can elicit shame or embarrassment in others, maybe also fear or disgust. It’s an affront. One family in The Times series urged me not to write about their mother’s physical decline, saying they wanted to preserve her dignity — a common sentiment. Rare is the leader like Jimmy Carter, who has let the public see him through the various changes of late old age.
He’s 97, born a year later than Ruth.
For those who make it to old old age, there remains the challenge: How do you make a full and meaningful life when you can’t do so many of the things you once did? At the end of life, what turns out to really matter, and what is just noise?
For as long as I knew Ruth, she valued time with her children above all, leveraging the anticipation of the next visit to sustain her through the gaps in between. At the end, this time together was all there was.
In a 24-hour span in December, she had visits from her four children and three of her four grandchildren. They looked through old photo albums together, remembering happy moments, with Ruth identifying faces in the pictures for her children.
On a phone call during one family visit, she told me, “I’m blessed,” as she always did about her children’s attentions. Then she added something new: “I deserve it.”
In 2015, when I started the series, I expected it to be about the ravages of old age, about the things that old age took away. What else was there to say about getting old? Ruth and the others certainly experienced those ravages. They fell in their apartments, alone, unable to get up. They forgot words that once came easily, or repeated things they’d said moments before. They became homebound or unsafe even in their own homes. Fred Jones could not change a light bulb in his apartment, so I arrived one day to find him in the semidark. All had lost people close to them, and most experienced periods of loneliness, when they struggled to find reasons to continue.
On Ruth’s last hospital stay, she spent eight hours waiting for an ambulette to take her home, until finally, at midnight, her daughter got a doctor to help lift Ruth into her car and drove her home.
But as often as not, their days were like that December phone call with Ruth: battered by circumstances beyond their control, yet also leavened by something that they brought to their woes — in Ruth’s case, support from her children and pride in herself.
None of the six had planned for late old age, even those who had cared for spouses at the end of life. There was early old age, as depicted in the sunny brochures for retirement communities, and there was the end, but few pointers about what happens in between.
Pleasures Within Reach
Yet all had something that they wanted: In place of the long-range aspirations of younger times, which often bring anxiety, they picked pleasures within reach. Helen Moses, who found the second love of her life at the Hebrew Home in Riverdale, in the Bronx, set her heart on getting married. Fred Jones wanted to live to 110, and more proximately, to get back to church, a prime flirting ground. Ping Wong, who lived on less than $700 a month in Social Security benefits, wanted to go to Atlantic City with her family one more time.
Jonas Mekas at 95 was working to finish several books and films.
For Ruth, as her time got shorter, her goals became more immediate. In November, she vowed to live until her birthday, a week away; on a Friday in December, she said her goal was to survive a couple more days, until her son could visit from New Hampshire. She managed to do both.
Helen had a commitment ceremony with her partner, Howie Zeimer; Ping made it to Atlantic City; Jonas completed an extraordinary amount of work, some of which will be available this year, in dozens of exhibitions planned for his centennial.
John Sorensen, a gay man who desperately missed his partner of 60 years, spent most of our first year hoping to be mobile enough to attend Thanksgiving at a friend’s house.
He, too, made it, and it was even better than he had imagined. It was also his last. On my final visit with John, in a Manhattan nursing home in June 2016, he complimented a nurse on her eyelashes. “I’m never going to get better,” he said. “You’re pretty anyway.” He was 92.
Fred never did get back to church. In April 2016, shortly after the death of his closest daughter, he, too, was gone.
Each of the six found a different balance between enjoying the satisfactions that were still accessible to them and lamenting those they had lost. Until dementia forced Ping Wong to move from her apartment, she organized her days around playing mahjong with the same four women in her building. She said, “I never think about the things I can’t reach.”
Fred Jones liked to socialize and sing in a voice modeled on the jazz singer Billy Eckstine’s; Jonas Mekas had his work and the company it brought him; Helen Moses had Howie and visits from her daughter; John Sorensen never missed the Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcasts; Ruth had her family.
None expected to live forever, nor wanted to. With the exception of Fred, who feared his afterlife, they seemed to take comfort in the knowledge that their days were limited, even if their children didn’t. One of time’s virtues is that it is finite. It’s what gives days their value. Ruth often tried to prepare her children for her death. Even in middle age, they were still her children, and she was still mothering them, her daughter Judy Willig, 68, said. “She and I talked about her dying a lot,” Judy said. “She’d say, ‘I’m worried how you kids will do.’ I said, ‘Mom, we’re not kids.'”
What Matters Most
One year ago, after her 97th birthday, Ruth for the first time talked about living to 100, which she had always said did not interest her. The timing was odd, with the pandemic still uprooting every part of her life. But she said, “And if I do, we can have a party.”
Seven more months passed before I could visit her, out of doors. She’d lost some weight and her speech was mushy as a result of tooth problems, but mostly she made light of the changes in her condition. Though she was upset that her son was moving to New Hampshire, she said: “I’m not going to say anything. It’s their life, and I’m not going to be here forever.”
She mentioned a recent sleepless night — she’d been having a lot of them — when she started thinking about her children and her funeral. They had never made concrete plans, she said. “We went through the Do Not Resuscitate, all that stuff. But the details of the funeral, no. And then of course the money that I’m living on, maybe some of it will be left.” She stopped to laugh. “Hopefully.”
She spent November in and out of the hospital, each time putting up more resistance to going there. “It forced us to think with her about what was most important to her,” Judy Willig said. The two things that mattered most to Ruth, they decided, “were seeing us and maintaining as much independence as possible.”After a seven-day stay, Ruth returned home under hospice care at the end of the month. There she made a great effort to walk but was too weak, and her blood pressure dropped precipitously.
That was the Ruth her daughter would describe — putting all her energies into what was important to her, even at risk to herself.
Finally, there was nothing more that she wished for. She was where she wanted to be, with the people she wanted around her. Her daughters took to sleeping on her couch and floor, not wanting to leave her — a level of care that Ruth both grumbled at and appreciated.
“No more after this,” she said in early December — meaning years, I think. She added, “Why is it so hard?”
So: How do you make a full and meaningful life when you can’t do so many of the things you once did? The pandemic has brought home how much this question applies to people at any age.
For almost two years, no one has been able to do things they once did. We all gave up some mobility and time with people, all stopped going to places we loved and felt some degree of isolation. Everyone had to find satisfactions that were still accessible — to make lives of what they had, not what was taken away.
The elders have been living in this terrain for a long time. Their answers — don’t brood about the things you can’t reach; live as if your time is limited; focus on the people you care about; enjoy the pleasures near at hand — are simple but highly useful, pillars on which to build a good life. Easy to do, hard to remember to do.
To add one more, from Jonas Mekas: A month before his death, he told a friend in the hospital that he had come to accept his end.
“I am preparing myself,” he told his friend, the actor Benn Northover. He said that he had been negotiating with his angels, and that they needed his help.
“You mean they need your help there?” Mr. Northover asked.
Jonas did not open his eyes, but smiled, Mr. Northover said.
“No, no,” Jonas answered. “There is fine. It’s here that needs help. The world needs a lot of help. I will be very busy, busier than I’ve ever been.”
It was a declaration that what one did mattered, and that it did not stop mattering even when all else was lost.
For almost seven years, Ruth and the other elders have served as correspondents from a country that most of us have not traveled in, though many will. Their dispatches have been generous, surprising, predictable, enlightening, contradictory and occasionally full of beans, befitting what the novelist Penelope Lively, born a decade after Ruth, called “this place at which we arrive with a certain surprise — ambushed, or so it can seem.”
They have been, after all, stories of loss: accepting loss, resisting it, living fully with it even while acknowledging the pain it brings. Which is to say, they have been stories of life. And as such, the stories come to an end, in this final article in a Times series that began back in the Obama administration.
At the end of each year, I asked the elders if they were glad to have lived it. Did the year have value to them? Always the answer was the same, even from those, including Ruth, who had said during the year that they were ready to go, that they wished for an end sooner rather than later. Yes, they said, yes, it was worth living.
I could not ask this question of Ruth this year, so her last words will have to stand as her answer. When she could no longer speak on her final day, surrounded by family, she simply kissed her daughters’ hands. But before that she turned to her nurse. “Thank you,” she said, and did not speak again.