It’s a Saturday morning of an Autumn that has suddenly turned cold but sunny! The sky is blue, and it’s so good to walk on the street and feel the cold, and the sun, on our faces. I’m walking side by side with my son Pedro; we are having lunch at a restaurant where I used to go often with Dad and Ilda (my stepmother) in the good old days of my youth, and I’m telling Pedro old stories about his Granddad. How he lived in Porto but still came every month to see me and my brother Brownie, and took us to lunch and then to the movies and then to dinner…I used to love these Saturday programs; of course it was good to see them but Dad would always choose good restaurants, and let us youngsters choose the movies we wanted to see…I remember once we chose a terror movie about a phantom ship and poor Ilda, terrified, went out after a few minutes, but Dad, who was enjoying it as we were, stayed on until the end…
An old times’ restaurant
As we sat down, I told Pedro “Everything looks the same”. I can still picture the four of us sitting on that round table in the corner, my brother always with a sullen look that meant he would rather be somewhere else, but the rest of us really having a good time. I look around and see the decoration is quite old fashioned for it hasn’t changed. Even the old image of a policeman on the wall is still there, quite adequate as the restaurant’s name is precisely “The Policeman” (O Polícia, in Portuguese).
Pedro and I talk of many things. Of his life at university; he tells me he’s enjoying his Food & Beverages class and points out the waiter has failed to do some things properly – at least as he is being taught how to serve at the table. I look at him and wonder at how my “baby” has grown, how he has become so interested in his studies (Hotel Management) and we recall the difficult days when he had bad results at school and I and his Dad worried he would not get into university. Then he suddenly changed and worked hard and made it!
Engrossed as we are in our conversation, we notice the waiter is helping an elderly gentleman to the table next to ours. He looks really old and quite handicapped; he has to be helped to walk and does so with very small, careful steps, as if he is afraid to fall all the time. He immediately reminds me of my poor Mom, who now goes from bed to reclining chair and vice versa…and rarely goes out as it is so difficult for her to move.
An old friends’ lunch
The gentleman sits down with considerable difficulty, as the waiter is trying to adjust a cushion that never seems to be in the right place, and now arrives another elderly gentleman, probably about the age of the former, or maybe younger as he looks in a much better shape and walks normally towards the table, gleefully greeting his companion.
I thought of a son but then no, he is too old for that; and then when they are talking to a lady whom I understand is the restaurant’s owner – I have already understood they are long-time customers, as they are called by their names – I hear the elder gentleman tell her, in his broken voice “You know, he is my good friend, from long ago – and nowadays, the only one I have left”.
The lady, naturally, says what we always say to old people when we cannot find anything else to say : “But you look so good, Coronel, you are in great shape” – and if course she is lying as he definitely is not but she is trying to be nice. As she walks away, the younger friend sarcastically comments “Take care, my friend, when they start saying you look great is when you understand you have grown old!”, and they both laugh.
No matter their bright mood, and the fact that they genuinely seem happy to be reunited, the conversation must have turned to less agreeable subjects, as at a certain point I hear the older friends tell the other “You know, my friend, approaching one hundred what worries me is if I run out of money. I do have some savings in the bank, but what will I do if I live longer than expected? How will I live?” His friend tries to lighten up the mood, laughing: “Don’t you worry, old chap, your apartment, located in this area, one of the best and more expensive in Lisbon, must be worth some € 2 million so no worries for you…” and his friend seems slightly reassured, but this makes me think of the tragedy – because in most cases it is a tragedy – of longevity; people are living longer but not necessarily better and most of the times considerably poorer…nothing can be worse that being old…and poor, I heard someone say, and I cannot agree more.
The tragedy of old age
When you are young and have no money, you have so many other things to light up your life, such as love, a fit body, health and a strong conviction that things will get better. When you are old your body is failing, you need so much money for doctors and medicines and in order to have some comfort, and you live in terror that the day may come when you don’t have enough. And life goes on and sometimes you find yourself wishing you would die but still you don’t, your old, broken body insists on living for another day. On the other hand, our society is not a society for the old, they have been despised, but as they are becoming a legion, the majority of the population, hopefully things will change.
Our lunch is over. I have to go and do some shopping and Pedro is going to his father’s. We ask for the check and come out, leaving the old friends still animatedly chatting at the table, making the most of their time together before they return to their respective homes, probably lonely places where they have all the time in the world to dwell on memories of glorious times past.
We come out and a friend of Pedro’s joins us on the street; Pedro is giving him a lift. He greets me with a huge smile, he is one of my son’s friends whom I have known, and welcomed at my home, for many years, since they were small boys. Now they are grown men, almost finishing university.
They kiss me goodbye and we go our separate ways. I look back and see them walking, side by side, so straight, talking and smiling, looking forward to a bright future. I remember the two elderly gentlemen inside, who have been young once too but now have almost come to the end of the road; I think of myself, more than half the middle. I think of my dear friends, Gaby, Beli, Luisa, Rosario and all the others and I can barely imagine us so old around a table. The worst of it all is to imagine that some of us will start disappearing…it’s so cruel. As you live longer, your friends disappear as happened to Granddad. As he lived to 92, he was the very last to pass away; when he left us, he didn’t have one single friend alive. It still breaks my heart to remember this, and I absolutely refuse to think of that – hopefully, still distant – future, so I decidedly brush those thoughts away from my mind and walk on, enjoying the sun on my face. Nothing better than an afternoon of shopping to send bad thoughts away, and I finally forget the two old friends who, by now, must be returning home with their slow, careful steps, already missing the agreeable moments of companionship shared during lunch. And wondering if they will live to have another lunch together again.