Photo by Robert Burroughs
“Well, God won’t have me. And the devil won’t take me.”
Most of you will live another thirty or forty years; some won’t survive the next decade; one or two of you probably will die in the next few days. And you’ll all, everyone, regret that die end came so soon.
Sara Bratton is awakening to the 288th day of her 104th year on this planet.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
You'll wish you had been among the rare ones who make it to the farthest, flattest slope on the hell curve for human mortality, and learned what it is like to grow very, very old. Here is a lady who knows.
It is earliest morning in room twenty-one of the La Mesa Convalescent Home and Sara Bratton is awakening to the 288th day of her 104th year on this planet. Two beds run north and south. A window opens up the east wall, and Sara occupies the bed farthest from it, near the door.
Sara was the fifth of eight children born in a log cabin lit by kerosene lamps.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
She wonders what time it is. But she has no way of getting a precise answer; it’s been twenty years since her eyes could read a watch. She guesses, from the quiet, that it is dawn.
Lying on her back with her knees drawn up to the right, her left arm extended down at her side, she looks as if someone had arranged her on the bed like a fading flower, as if her frail limbs lacked the power to stir themselves. But she holds her right arm up to her forehead. The long, bony fingers disappear into clumps of stiff white hair. She moans softly, then the clouded slits of her eyes close again.
On the Arizona cattle ranch there was a quarter of a whole beef hanging from the rafter, piles of whole dressed chickens, rows upon rows of canned tomatoes and greens.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
I’m not even asleep, she thinks. But here I’m dreaming again. The dreams come so easily.
She is seventeen years old, galloping hard against the plain in central Texas, and she can smell.the hot. wet horseflesh underneath her. Ahead in the distant dust is her cowboy husband. Will; he laughs when their horses meet.
It’s Sunday afternoon, she knows, because they’re riding, carefree, to the Sinsaba River to pick pecans.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
It’s Sunday afternoon, she knows, because they’re riding, carefree, to the Sinsaba River to pick pecans. In the dream, she can almost feel the cool, crystalline river water and taste the sweet nutmeat. . . . She slips into deeper sleep and when she awakes, the breakfast cart is rolling down the hallway.
When she first moved to Jacumba she could barely comb her hair, her fingers hurt so much Then she took the sweat baths.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Sara has lived in this clean, pleasant nursing home just off Baltimore Drive on Fletcher Parkway for the last seven years. But her home of forty-three years was Jacumba. A lifelong Westerner, she came to the desert town southeast of San Diego via Hollywood and Arizona and, originally, from Texas.
She was in the fields obediently following in the footsteps of her father, tucking cotton seeds into the freshly plowed ground at his every third footprint.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
It was there, in a village called Georgetown, about thirty miles north of Austin, that she was born Sara Williams on the last day of August in 1876.
She was the fifth of eight children born in a log cabin lit by kerosene lamps. It was a nice log cabin, she likes to tell people (as if to downplay the foreignness of an age when such homes were common), and it was set in the middle of a cotton farm. Her mother had grown up in a Mississippi home tended by servants; her Tennessee-born father sustained a crippling knee wound while fighting for the South in the Civil Var. They both had traveled down the Mississippi River and somehow had migrated to the heart of Texas. These things Sara recalls without effort.
"You rot if you lie around in bed all day.”
Photo by Robert Burroughs
It is one of the oddities of more than a hundred years of memory that the early images often are the clearest. She can almost see the cotton fields; she recollects her mother teaching her how to weave. Idly, she wonders what became of the old family spinning wheel that occupies her mind so vividly. But if someone were to ask her this morning how long she has lived in the nursing home, she would grumble that her memory doesn’t serve her well. She dwelt in Jacumba for longer than many people live their lives. She liked it, but she has little to add beyond that.
She aches to leap out of her wheelchair and run into the bright sunshine.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
She can’t remember whether her husband came with her when she moved down in 1928 from the Hollywood hills, where he had worked as a horseback fire ranger. Sara was fifty-two that year, and she says when she first moved to Jacumba she could barely comb her hair, her fingers hurt so much Then she took the sweat baths in the hot springs at the Jacumba Hotel, where she worked as a chambermaid with a friend named Barnes. “People were good to us and we had a real good time working there.” The hot springs dispelled the pain in her hands. They haven’t troubled her since then, she thinks, as she reaches out for her breakfast. A nurse’s aide sets it on a mobile tray in front of the old lady.
“What is it today?” Sara inquires, peering down at the plates.
“Oh good! That’s my favorite,” she says happily.
Sometimes she’s sorry she ever left her little house in the desert hills. There seemed to be no choice at the time she sold it. at ninety-four, her eyesight fading and her hearing deteriorating. But she was an outdoor person all her life and she felt closer to nature in Jacumba. Nowadays Sara reckons she should have found some young couple to live with and care for her in return for the house. But it’s too late to think of that, she tells herself. She chews contentedly on the food, thinking of the kindness of the nursing staff here, of the fact that she’s never had any complaints. After a while the aide appears to reclaim the dishes.
“What time is it?” Sara asks.
“It’s a little after eight.”
She has three choices. She can climb back into bed from her wheelchair, close her eyes, and wait for more dreams to come. She can stay in the chair, turning it so that her eyes don’t face the painful light. Or she can roll, herself down the hall to some darkened corner, perhaps to sit for an hour or two in the shadows of the vacant beauty salon room.
"You rot if you lie around in bed all day,” she mutters quietly. She reaches for a purple mohair robe on the bed, arranges it on herself, then swings the chair toward the western wall of her room. She folds her hands. They look like old rubber gloves that have cracked and loosened with age so that they no longer fit skintight, translucent gloves that show the swollen blue veins, and which the years have spotted with rusty brown. Her oval fingernails are incongruous. On a recent “Nail Day,” someone painted them with peach-colored polish. Now slowly, the right thumb circles the left one; after a few minutes, they reverse directions.
The old lady sits slightly hunched forward, and on her face is a timid, withdrawn expression that almost makes her look a little afraid, but in fact she’s thinking to herself that she’s so bored she could scream. For a moment she aches to leap out of her wheelchair and run into the bright sunshine and climb to the roof of the nursing home or into some tree and . . .jump! — just to shatter the monotony. For the 10,000th time she imagines being able to read. She loved reading so dearly, but at least two decades have passed since her eyes could focus on a printed page. She’s even forgotten what she used to read, and she’s not sure what she would read if she could. “Just a nice book,’’ she says. “I wouldn’t read trashy stuff.’’ After all this time, her grief over the loss of her sight seems fresh. But she also maintains hope. The daughter of the hospital director has told her that she’ll try to obtain glasses to improve Sara’s sight. When the old lady thinks of that, her eyes fill with tears, which she quickly blinks away.
A pair of knitting needles and some orange yarn sit on the top of the dresser next to her bed. Sara no longer can crochet because she can’t see the patterns anymore. The only thing she can do is knit, and the only things she knits are little covers for coat hangers, but today she can’t even summon the interest to do that. Her thumbs continue to rotate and she turns to her last and most enduring diversion: memories. She selects them as lovingly as if they were well-handled books. She tells friends that those remembrances she doesn’t like, she leaves “on the shelf.” Now she chooses the very favorite memory from her childhood. A distant look enters her eyes and she can hear her mother’s voice announcing the momentous news: Papa has decided to rent out the farm for a year, and for the sheer joy of exploring, the Williams family is going to hit the road!
Sara is twelve years old and she can barely contain her glee. She can see the two big covered wagons, one for mother to drive and the other for papa. She rides in the rear of her mother’s vehicle, in front of the big chest that holds the family’s clothes. A soft mattress covers the wagon floor in front of it; there Sara plays quietly with a rag doll while her sister curls up and dozes, bounced in her nap by the rutted dirt roads of north Texas in 1888.
Ah, it was grand! Whenever papa ran out of money, the family would encamp in some little town and he would work for a few weeks as a carpenter, a talent which came to him naturally. Once he worked with Jesse James’s brother Frank, who was also a carpenter. How exciting the children had found that! Papa had told them how Jesse still thought folks had done him wrong. “Whenever anything goes wrong anywhere, they put the blame on me. They put me on the run, and I’m still running,” the outlaw would complain.
And mother would hold classes in the morning, if it was convenient; and if it wasn’t, that was okay; the children could read and write well enough. Evenings, they would fix supper on a campfire. . . .
“Well, lazybones, it’s time for you to get dressed.”
Sara looks up, startled. “Who’s that?” “It’s Barbara,” replies a brisk woman in white. “Don’t you want to get dressed? It’s almost ten o’clock.”
“Yay-ah.” The word is one of the only remnants of Sara’s Southern origins. Sharp lines that cut downward from the corners of her large nose end in crinkled jowls that droop heavily. But when she smiles, the lines lift and haul up the pouches of flesh, so she looks years younger. Now she smiles, beatifically. Her pale blue eyes are sunk deep into her head, and above them fifteen or sixteen wavy lines crest on her forehead. The nurse steps up to the wheelchair and creates a little privacy by pulling open a suspended cotton curtain like one of those around a hospital bed. She extracts a white slip from the drawer next to Sara's bed. “Now scoot up in the chair,” she suggests kindly.
Gingerly the old woman rises inch by inch until she reaches a semi-squat, and the nurse strips off her nightie with one swift motion. The old woman is patient and silent. as the nurse pulls the soft slip down over the naked white body — over breasts flat as empty pouches, over a belly surprisingly round for one so wizened, over all the muscles gravity has been tugging at for more than a century. Moving to the closet, the nurse selects a cotton slipover dress in bright red and white checks and in short order she clads Sara in it, and in nylon stockings and slip-on shoes.
"I want panties,” Sara says with a ring of authority.
“You do?” The nurse sounds surprised, but she accommodates the request.
“Where’s my ear bobs?” Sara asks, but the nurse is already searching for a pair in a little box of dime-store jewelry. One hundred and one years ago Sara's mother pierced holes in her daughter's ear lobes; Sara has worn earrings ever since. Long ago the holes grew shut but the old lady still feels naked without the ornaments, so today the nurse screws on shiny black plastic ones. Then the woman in white pushes the chair out into the hall and Sara grabs the wheels. It is a “Rolls” model presented to her as a gift from her son’s Shriner friends.
She is used to navigating the halls, and she steadily maneuvers around clusters of old people, both those shuffling on foot and the others in wheelchairs. Her impaired sight still permits her to distinguish major shapes. She steers toward the dining room, where she waits patiently for her cup of sugared coffee and three cookies.
She nibbles them slowly, spooning the coffee to her mouth to cool the hot liquid. A warm breeze fills the room, and Sara inhales it, yearning to be outside. But the light is too bright in this room, let alone on the outdoor patio, so she retreats to the hallway, and then again to her room.
The visit to the dining room reminds her of her approaching birthday. For the last several years the nursing home has staged parties for her; a recent one drew relatives she hadn't seen in thirty years, and she felt the strain of not really knowing them, of feeling impolite. Now she hopes that they’ll let her observe the completion of her 104th year quietly. But she eagerly anticipates one birthday promise.
Mr. Brandt, the nursing home administrator. has offered to take her for a ride in his small airplane, and at the very thought of such a thing a little smile forms on the old lady’s face. How wonderful to fly before she dies! She told the administrator that she’s ridden horses (and how she rode — remember tearing across the Texas fields on Blue Britches with the wind full on her face?) and she had ridden automobiles (remember that pretty red brand-new Ford that she and Will bought in Tempe for $500? Remember how she roared over the hills in it the day she raced her friend?) and now what joy she would take in flying! Some birthday that would be ... the thought again reminds her of past birthdays, of the silly question about her “secrets” for long life.
“Well, God won’t have me. And the devil won’t take me,” she always says poker-faced. “I guess you folks will have to keep me.” Then she breaks into a mischievous grin. Might as well make a joke out of it, she thinks to herself. Who knows the truth of it? In fact, whenever she thinks about whether she expected to live this long she giggles aloud. She can remember one day when she was in her fifties when it occurred to her that she was old enough to die.vHer longevity has surprised her for five decades since then.
Is it her genes? But why did her mother die at fifty-two, and her father in his seventies, and why did all her brothers and sisters go years before her? And even her own babies, Ruth, the oldest, died at age thirty-six; and Arch, the youngest boy, who lived in the Imperial Valley, succumbed a few years ago at sixty-five. Now only Charles, her middle child, is left, and it torments Sara to think of him, eighty-three years old, suffering from disabling knee problems at his home in Paradise, California.
Certainly a life of hard work didn’t hurt her. By the age of seven or eight, she was in the fields obediently following in the footsteps of her father, tucking cotton seeds into the freshly plowed ground at his every third footprint. And then a few years later she had jumped out of the fat and into the fire, with marriage at seventeen and a baby the next year. That convinced her girls shouldn't marry young; those who do aren’t girls for long. But there had been a few good times, when the farm work let up and mother and papa would pack up the kids and load them in a covered wagon or two and head over to the river, where they would ride and swim and pick pecans or walnuts or whatever was in season. . . .
Sara Bratton is sitting in her wheelchair in the dim corridor and wishing she were hungry. She can discern the cart loaded with lunch plates advancing down the hall. “Here comes the chuckwagon,” she remarks to her roommate Alfieta, who is parked in a wheelchair nearby. Lunch comes about 12:30 and Sara craves a hunger fierce enough to make her want to eat a lizard! Food would taste so good then. When the cart reaches her room, she barely has any appetite. Nonetheless she receives the tray gratefully and sniffs: roast beef, squash, mashed potatoes with gravy, sweet cake, a diversion to pass the time.
When she finishes the meal and they remove the tray, she does climb back into bed. Time for her nap; again the dreams come fast.
She is back on the cattle ranch not far from Seligman, Arizona, where Will works as foreman overseeing a thousand head. The children are grown but Sara has much to do, cooking for all the cowboys. They say she’s one of the very best. She always answers that she’s lucky to have such good food to cook with; she can walk into the dark, cool pantry cut into the hill in back of the ranch house and the sight of it takes her breath away: a quarter of a whole beef hanging from the rafter, piles of whole dressed chickens, rows upon rows of canned tomatoes and greens, hundred-pound sacks of flour and sugar brought in on the freight wagon. Then she rolls up her sleeves and cuts big roasts off the beef and loads her arms up with provisions and heads back to the kitchen to sling it around.
The Arizona kitchen is her domain. . Once, when she had to leave for a few days to travel to the dentist, she baked for days in advance, preparing food for the men to eat in her absence. How she scrubbed and polished to make that kitchen gleam. Who could forget the shambles that greeted her return — the piles of dirty pans and silver, the moldering scraps, the flies? She went on strike. When the thoughtless varmints had asked about dinner, Will had told them there wouldn’t be any dinner until they cleaned the mess, which they did, though the memory of it still makes her quiver.
Now, in this dream, she’s leaving the ranch house again, but her kitchen is safe because it’s roundup time and the men are out on the trail. Will has gotten word to her where they will camp that day and she’s riding to join them. It's early morning and she’s trotting at a brisk clip, alone, heading for her man, and she’s unspeakably happy.
A girlish smile plays on her lips, then she shifts on the hospital bed. Later, through her open mouth she draws shallow, raspy breaths. Her chest rises and falls precipitously. Out in the hall, a woman wails with senility. Alfleta, Sara’s roommate, snaps, “Shut up! You’re an old woman.”
It is after four. Sara has slept much longer than usual. She moans softly again. Her eyes open fractionally to admit a gray band of light and she feels a wave of confusion . What time is it? Has she eaten? Is this a new day? Or has she slept this one away? The old lady struggles up on her elbows almost frantically, pushing away from the bed as if it were a coffin. “Gonna get bedsores,” she hisses, and then the sound turns into a sob. “Nobody cares whether I live or die! ”
She perches on the edge of the bed and steadies herself warily. A few years ago she was sitting just like this when somehow she fell. Her arm broke. Now she sits quietly and listens. Andy Williams is singing from a nearby radio and more distant voices from several late-afternoon television shows blend to a subdued drone. Two nurses are talking not far down the hall. Moments tick by and now Sara remembers that she is dressed and she’s eaten breakfast and lunch, and soon they’ll come with dinner. Still, when she eases herself into the wheelchair, depression envelops her.
Her thin shoulders hunch over farther than ever, and the peach-colored thumbs roll slowly. She closes her eyes and unclasps the knobby hands to place the palms together. She asks for the Lord to lift the bleak mood, her standard response to gloom. She prays every morning when she rises and every night before dozing. She thinks of herself as a good Christian woman, one who tries to do right, yet who is not fanatical. “You know, you can do nothing but talk religion,” she tells friends, and she doesn’t believe in doing that. She’s still a member of the Jacumba United Methodist Church.
She muses that now there seem to be more things she’s not so sure about. Back in the Sunday school of her childhood, where the preacher talked so forcefully, so frighteningly of hell. Sara was certain that if one didn’t live right, one would face perdition. “But your thinking just kind of changes,” she explains. Now it seems to her that hell is right here on earth. When people are happy and everything's going right, that’s heaven; and when the trouble and the sorrow strikes, that’s hell. She sighs. She’s just a hillbilly, not a preacher. She might be all wrong, she reminds herself again.
Soon, she will know. Her own death is coming and she’s ready to face it. She’s resigned, but she doesn’t want to die. Recently Sara recoiled when a visitor asked if she were glad she had lived as long as she had. Who wants to die? she responded impatiently. Nobody. Stupid question.
She wonders what time it is. There’s no one around to ask. Probably near dinnertime. The old lady propels her chair until the front wheels turn into the wall of the hallway. Softly, she hums a little tune whose words she can’t remember. Her son Charles gave her a nice big radio that sits on the dresser next to her bed. and she listens to music in the evening, in the hour or so between dinner and the time the nurses come with her sleeping pill. But she likes to save the radio music; it’s another landmark in the creeping passage from dawn to dusk.
Her thoughts roam, returning to her August birthday. She wonders about Mr. Brandt’s promise of the airplane ride. He’s such a dear, good man, but he’s also a card. Was the offer sincere? She wonders if the plane feels anything like a horse or a shiny new Ford with bright red wheels. She hopes Mr. Brandt realizes that she’s serious, that she will climb right out of her wheelchair and into that little bird, and if she doesn’t make it down, even that will be okay. Sara Bratton sits in the fading light of the day and dreams of soaring through the clear, fresh air.