At Mary Dacoba’s birthday party last year, I placed a pink tiara in her white hair and hugged her close. She is 100 years old. Mary was born in 1919, on the heels of the Spanish Flu which arrived with a vengeance in 1918 and killed fifty million people worldwide, 675,000 Americans. I’m so glad Mary wasn’t one of them; the world needs her bright light today.
I’m happy that she’s safely isolated and happier still that she isn’t isolating alone.
“I’m surrounded by my family. Everyone is here,” she reassures me from her home in Great Falls. “They take very good care of me … but I miss you, honey. Are you being careful?”
The sound of her voice makes me feel happier, lighter than I’ve felt in weeks; it holds no ring of restlessness, no eagerness to ease back out into the world. Still, she’s worried about those seniors who are lonely and alone, and she asks me to send them a message.
“Can you tell them if they’re lonely, they need to call their friends and family! They should reach out. It’s not good to sit by yourself. I feel awful that they’re lonely.”
Mary’s daughter Domenica says the whole family dotes on their amazing matriarch, especially now. “She likes to sit outside in the sun, so on nice days we kind of chase the sun as it moves across the sky, moving her from spot to spot, to make sure she gets her fill.”
The image of the sun-chasing makes me smile and brings me relief.
I want to place another tiara in her white hair in August, when she turns 101.
Grief still grips the heart of my friend Myrna Stuart. About nine months ago she went upstairs to wake her husband Gary and a single, shocking glance at his face changed her world forever: He was gone.
They would have celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary today, on May 28.th
“With every breath I take, I am deeply aware that he is not here breathing beside me,” she says. “If he were here today, we’d be quarantined together, cooking, playing Scrabble, watching Netflix. So I’m not just troubled by the arrival of this awful virus” — and here, a pause and a tremor that catches my heart — “I’m saddened that we’re not riding this out together.”
Myrna, 80, is surrounded by vestiges of virtual love. Her kids leave groceries in the garage of her Arlington home and they speak with her daily. “I have the support system out there,” she says gratefully. “I just don’t have the people in here. And I don’t have Gary.”
What she does have, though, is determination.
“I walk inside my house for 1-2 hours every day. I write notebooks and notebooks to Gary, and long, comprehensive e-mails to friends and loved ones. I have music on constantly. And I try to achieve a task each and every day.”
Is she tempted to step back out with the rest of the world? “Not at all. I know I am right where I need to be. Plus, I couldn’t venture out even if I wanted to. My allergies keep me in.”
Call me cruel, but I’m happy, in a sad kind of way, that her allergies keep her safely sealed inside.
I need her to stay okay.
Every time I speak with Catherine Mathews, 94, I feel better about the world. Catherine doesn’t just live life on life’s terms — she defines those terms, then bosses them around.
Catherine isn’t eager to ease back out, either. But as long as she’s quarantined, you can best believe she’s making the best of the quest.
She can’t get out so she simply brings the world in, making her life as virtually pleasant as virtually pleasant can be.
“I read a lot on Kindle – but nothing too long or too morose. ‘Contagion’ is not on my reading list,” she adds with a smile in her voice.
“I attend church service on Zoom. After service, the church hosts a virtual coffee hour, too. I guess this is the virtual version of mingling these days. I enjoy it.”
Catherine also has virtual exercise sessions with her instructor. “We do it on FaceTime! I prop the phone up at just the right angle so she can see me and tell me what I’m doing right and wrong.”
Doctor’s appointments? Virtual, too. “I don’t have to expose myself to the germs in the doctor’s office or search for my car in the parking lot afterward!” She’s in constant (virtual) contact with her two children, her neighbors, and her church family.
Catherine lived through World War II and the Great Depression, too, when her family lost everything. Though she wasn’t quite yet born when the Spanish Flu hit, she remembers her mother talking about it later; how the family fled from New York to Vermont to escape the ravages of the disease.
“Just like the Spanish Flu, we’ll see a second wave with this virus,” she predicts. “And the second wave is probably going to be even worse.”
Even in the face of this prediction, I end our call feeling better. The world feels a little more balanced. A few seconds later, my phone chirps again. It’s Catherine, her bright face smiling at me on a FaceTime call. (I’d inadvertently called her back on FaceTime.)
“Did you forget something?” she asks me with love in her voice.
But it gave me a great excuse to see her beautiful face.
Bob Gralley is 94 years old. He’s also a marathon runner – still. “I’ve only been running half-mile marathons lately,” he concedes, “but I keep track of every mile I run. I’m up to about 58,000 miles altogether.”
Gralley’s energy burns through the phone line. I can almost feel his running shoes hitting the pavement.
Is he antsy to get back out into real-world circulation? Not really. He and his wife Betty, also 94, are very happy in their retirement community in Parkville, Maryland. “We have everything we need.”
Bob still runs about 19 miles a week. There’s a dedicated space on the retirement property where he can run without risk of exposing himself to the general population.
Bob’s words of encouragement to other seniors: Exercise. Stay positive. Try something different.
“We all need to try new things. There are some people who don’t exercise because they think they won’t like it. But you have to try it first before you can determine if you like it! Whether it’s reading a book, or exercising– whatever it is – just try it!”
Plus, quarantine feels quainter when you’re happy. The Gralleys just welcomed their third great-grandson into the world a few weeks ago.
They met him for the first time on Zoom, during the Sunday evening get-together.
Kristin Clark Taylor is an author, editor, journalist, blogger, and motivator. She can be reached at [email protected]