Minding the Gap

It's one thing to think about what it might be like to grow old with someone. It's another thing to think about being with someone while they grow old.

October 8, 2014

Scaachi Koul is a senior writer at BuzzFeed Canada, formerly the managing editor of Hazlitt. Her debut collection of essays, The Pursuit of Misery, is...

Listen to me, mister. (Still from "On Golden Pond")

Earlier this summer, my boyfriend made a list of movies I needed to see. I am embarrassingly uneducated when it comes to cinema, instead subsisting on a diet of reality television and Archie comics. We started with Citizen Kane (“So much of The Simpsons makes sense now!” I said between mouthfuls of capellini as he sighed), working our way down the list to The Graduate (“MRS. BOUVIER!!!” I said, spilling risotto as he cleaned me up like a fat, happy baby).

My boyfriend knows more things than I do largely because he’s had more time to learn them. He’s 14 years my senior, which to some sounds minor (these people usually have parents with a sizeable age gap), but to others sounds grotesque (these people are usually my parents). Before we met, he’d received multiple degrees, lived in different countries, burned down and rebuilt his life multiple times. I can’t always decide if I love him for his vast experiences or if I resent him for it. I figure it’s a mix of both, where I like that he knows an amazing restaurant in an dark alley in Havana, but hate that he thinks he’s better than me because he’s read Infinite Jest. (I don’t believe him. No one has actually read Infinite Jest.)

A couple weeks ago, he begged me to watch On Golden Pond. “You’ll love it,” he said. “It’s all about a woman with daddy issues, and Jane Fonda and Katharine Hepburn are in it. I know how much you like her voice.”

And sure, Jane Fonda’s orange skin is in the movie, but it’s really about her dad (both on screen and in real life), Henry Fonda. After turning 80 (and I’m going to spoil this movie for you because it’s been out for 33 years), Henry has a few health issues: he gets confused, disoriented, lost, has chest pains. Hepburn is his steadfast wife, lovingly caring for her husband, who is losing it.

When we started dating, our age gap was a curiosity: “Did you have Internet in your room when you were younger?” I’d ask, and he’d just laugh. He explained beepers, smoking sections in restaurants, how he felt when Kurt Cobain died. (Pretty bad, apparently.) But this was back when I figured our age would eventually become a wedge rather than a bridge and we’d split up and he’d marry someone his own age and I’d go back to rooting in the sewers for rat-men to take me on rat-dates.

Years later, he still explains oddities about his history to me (“What do you mean, you remember the fall of the Berlin wall??”), but now I spend my time doing math. When I’m 30, he’ll be 44. That’s not so bad. But when I’m 40, he’ll be 54. That feels funny. And when I’m 50, he’ll be 64. And then when I’m 70, he will be dead. I continually have to reconcile that we are not the same age, and therefore have different expiry dates. This is an insane thing to worry about—he probably has at least 30 good years before becoming incontinent—but still, I’m afraid of having to take care of him when he needs it because I don’t think I’m any good at it.

My mom gets sick a lot, and my dad takes good care of her. Over the summer, she had chest pains and my dad rushed her to the ER. He’s done this a few times, when she faints or the throbbing in her ribs gets to be too much, and he calmly calls the ambulance and holds her hand while an EMT hovers over her. He is easy with care.

My boyfriend is the domestic one: he can make a roulade, he always has toilet paper, he pays his taxes (every year!), and brings me muscle relaxants when I pull something yelling at a cab driver. I’m not good at those things. A year ago, he got in an accident that left him housebound for seven weeks. I had no idea how to manage him, his pain, the things he needed, and how to keep him happy. I was a terrible nurse and a worse girlfriend. My instincts didn’t extend any further than wrapping plastic bags around his casts so he could hop into the tub. I contribute plenty of things to this relationship; it’s just that none of them involve caretaking or being nice.

Near the end of On Golden Pond, when Henry Fonda crashes his boat and almost dies, Hepburn swims out to get him herself. I do not know how to do that for someone.

We went to bed after the movie and he fell asleep almost immediately. I looked at him in the dark and traced the crows’ feet around his eyes. I tugged on his hair to make sure it was still strong and thick. He swatted me away. Good, I thought. He has his reflexes.

I’ll be 60 when he’s 74. What if he dies while I still have all these good years left? Or what if he gets dementia and forgets me when I’m young enough to remember everything?

But then I think of my grandfather, who was strong and healthy while my grandmother was slowly dying. I’d watch her disrobe and him spread ointment on the rashes all over her body. He’d help her put her sari back on and slept next to her even though she snored so loud that stray dogs barked outside. He was devastated when she died, but still thriving, totally able to live alone and carry on with his life.

He made it another 11 months.

Scaachi Koul is a senior writer at BuzzFeed Canada, formerly the managing editor of Hazlitt. Her debut collection of essays, The Pursuit of Misery, is forthcoming spring 2017 (Doubleday Canada).

Are you trying to sound out her name right now? You probably are.