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first person

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

I’m a woman in the generation next slated to die. I’m past my best-before date. In fact, I’m supposed to be dead already. Clever human technology has engineered new abilities to repair what wears out first and most in our bodies as we age, most precisely our joints, bones and hearts.

I’m ruminating more these days as I wait for my turn to be repaired or die first. I rummaged through my drawers, like an old woman does, and found a photograph that got me staring into the eyes of a man-child – my father – wearing a heavy woollen overcoat with large lapels that nearly swallow him. A swaggering tam o’shanter emphasized his cockiness and the smallness of his head. He stood in his signature stance with hands folded neatly across his chest, a fine-featured man I thought, and there’s a reverent look on his face as if he were going to Sunday School instead of to war. I stared into the photograph searching for myself, looking for the twinkle in his eyes that he passed on to me. Then a baby picture of me, taken four years later, came up next. I was three months old and howling from under the hood of a perambulator with no sign of a twinkle.

I was born a year before the end of the Second World War. Dad was discharged early after being sunk in fissures of mud and excrement, areas full of lice, rats, foot fungus and shards of bullets and grenades while breathing in man fragments. After all this, he became ill with pneumonia and had a collapsed lung. My Mom waited on the home front, cooking with wartime rations to make roly-poly pudding, redeemed only by raspberry jam and custard, and serving boiled eggs and toasted soldiers at tea time.

With Dad home, air raid sirens still sent them all scurrying for cover: my grandmother would funnel into her corset and my father would pull a blanket smelling of the wind from the laundry basket to hand to my mother and take the gas masks off the hook. The sound of planes would summon my mother to hurriedly slip a knitted coat onto my brother’s infant body one arm at a time. She would have swaddled my brother until he was like a cuckoo bird burying its way into a Harris Tweed nest and then grabbed the baby bottle. I know this because my mother wrote it down, “The noise was deafening with low flying aircraft, the screaming whine of bombs and earth-shaking thuds exploded in the distance; then a rapid staccato burst of fire as anti-aircraft guns went into action from a nearby field. On the way to the shelter someone shouted, ‘DOWN!’ and we flattened ourselves in the grass as a Junkers 88 passed over no higher than one thousand feet. As the plane crossed the moon, a huge black shadow the shape of wings and fuselage with a star cross outlined on the wings spread over us and I shuddered as if the mark of death was on us.”

Long after this air raid, I was conceived in a stone house, likely on a day as grey as my father’s eyes and my mother’s laundry. I imagine jam jars of bluebells and primroses sitting on cut stone windowsills, thick with decades of whitewash. Curled inside my mother’s womb I listened to the sounds of war, and came into the world feet first, ready to run. I became part of a family in postwar England living on nerves, squatting in an abandoned vicarage, almost homeless and wondering what animal protein was.

I was born just ahead of the pack of baby boomers now hammering at our door to get into the old-person culture promised them. The world has known about “them” for a long time, knowing society had to plan for the skewed age demography but not doing anything to prepare for it and not expecting my generation to still be alive sporting rubber knuckles and titanium joints. I’m half held together with metal taken from a broken puppet repair kit given to surgeons to prepare me for longevity.

These days, I’m in a casket of grandmotherhood living in a room with the same scent of oldness as the vestibule of Value Village. I’m lucky though, I live in an expensive retirement home earned by 70 years of the productivity and proactivity of an industrious middle-class woman. (Nine of my fellow residents are fast approaching 100 years old.) Memorabilia frames my bed, which sits near a wardrobe angled for feng shui, its doors plastered with poster-sized pictures of my children and grandchildren. Drawers spill threadbare underwear like a waterfall of stretched elastic, a testament of childbirth and macaroni casseroles glued together with Campbell’s mushroom soup.

Lately, I’ve been waiting to have a second hip replaced, and trembling like a child with a tiger under my bed. I became collateral damage in the COVID storm. The postponement of lengthy hip surgeries squandered the last precious, puny years of my life and diminished the quality of life I was promised.

In the meantime, while I wait, I ruminate about my mother’s clichés that offered a sloppy joe of wisdom with a garnish of garlic superstition thrown in for good measure. Bette Davis said, “Getting old ain’t for sissies.” And that’s the truth.

And yet, I’m here because my father and mother loved each other. I’ve become part of a “fix-it” generation firmly ensconced in a health care system frozen in time that has extended my life span phenomenally.

Wendy Weseen lives in Kamloops, B.C.