My friend passed the newspaper across the table and pointed to the article in the bottom corner. The headline read, “Georgia claims it has world’s oldest person, 130.”
“This is who I want to be.”
“You want to be an old woman?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. “Read it.”
I did. Antisa Khvichava is her name. Has a son, ten grandchildren, twelve great grandchildren, and six great, great grandchildren. And according to local authorities, she was born on July 8, 1880.
The article went on to say that a birth certificate was lost and so would not be forthcoming. Proof, it seemed, had been reduced to a few old Soviet documents and the word of local officials, neighbors, and descendants. She lives with her seventy-year-old son in the mountains near her birthplace.
I looked up at my friend, who was in the middle of a sip of his coffee. “That’s what I want,” he said. “To be that old.”
“Sure. Can you imagine being the oldest person in the world? How cool would that be? Do you have any idea how much wisdom that lady must have?”
I wasn’t sure. About any of it.
“She’s a hundred and thirty,” I said. I checked the article again. Ms. Khvichava’s fingers were cramped and deformed by age, but people said she continued to have a sharp mind. Somehow, that didn’t bring me much comfort. “You really want to live that long?”
“Absolutely,” my friend said. He picked up the sports section and thumbed through the baseball scores. “I wanna live a full life and then be dragged kicking and screaming out of this world.” He folded the paper and placed it in the middle of the table. “Don’t you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “What’s a full life?”
He shrugged. “Wife, kids, good job, retirement, grandkids. Maybe some golf.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll buy that. But still…a hundred and thirty?”
“Why not? How old do you want to be when you die?”
It was a question I’d never been asked, and one I had never thought to ask myself. “I don’t know,” I said.
He looked at me and sneered. “Better start thinking about it, then,” he said. “You ain’t getting any younger.”
He was right. I wasn’t. It could be said that I was now officially middle aged. I’d never thought about that either. And maybe it was time. We never know how long our lives will last, but most of us at some point reach a place in our lives when we believe we’re at some imaginary halfway point, that our next step will mean there’s more behind us than ahead.
I did want a full life. I had that much figured out, which was good news. And I thought I was well on my way to one. More good news.
My friend had picked up the newspaper to read the article again. “Wonder what she knows?” he asked. “Bet that’s a wise old lady.”
I was silent.
“Yep,” he said, “kicking and screaming. That’s how I want to go.”
The article didn’t include a picture, so I just formed one in my mind. And then I imagined what she’s seen over her nearly century and a half. Two revolutions. Two world wars. Hunger. Strife. Stalin. Death and destruction and hopelessness. It didn’t matter how long you last in this world, things weren’t going to get any better. You couldn’t wait on people to suddenly wake up and realize they’re a mess, because most never have and never will. That’s what I think she’d say.
I used to think about death a lot. I don’t much anymore. I think that has a lot more to do with the fact that I once thought of it as a period but now I think of it as a comma.
A waking up.
Kicking and screaming, my friend said. That’s how he wanted to go. He’d made up his mind about that. Maybe I should make up my mind about that, too.
My mind wandered to an old Native American saying I heard once. Smart people, those old Indians. They knew how to die well. And it wasn’t by kicking and screaming.
“When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.”