Never too old: Inspiration from centenarians Sarah, Ruby, and Sadie—“I did not have to accept limitations.”
A pinhole of hope opened when I met Sarah Conley. She leapt off the newspaper photo and planted a seed deep inside my psyche. The great-great-grandmother in a wheelchair, bedecked in cap and gown receiving her college degree, is not what had me agape with wonder. She was 104!
I was in my mid-30s and recovering from extreme emotional challenges that had consumed my life for a couple of years—and almost took it. If Sarah can achieve her dream at that age, maybe, I cautiously hoped, it actually is possible for me to still rebuild my life. Perhaps the human spirit can, indeed, triumph.
“Centenarian,” it stated in her newspaper article. Out came my worn, red Merriam Webster dictionary. “A person who is 100 or more years old.”
Soon, newspaper and magazine clippings of other centenarians joined Sarah in a folder. Books about these vital elders starting new adventures or keeping up lifelong interests began expanding my library.
Learning about such resilient people filled me with the same awe I had felt upon discovering the saguaro cactus. “It can grow an arm at 100,” my guide in the Arizona desert said.
These triumphs of mother nature and human nature echoed a favorite line of Dylan Thomas’ poetry that had come to symbolize my expanding faith in life: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”
Then, just as Sarah had appeared synchronistically, Ruby Hemenway jumped off the page and stretched my mind when I read the headline “World’s Oldest Newspaper Columnist on Earth.” Ruby became a weekly reporter for the Greenville Recorder at 92. At 100, in 1984, she was still writing what she learned growing up as the oldest of four children on a farm in North Leverett, Massachusetts.
It was the end of my third decade, and I hadn’t had a byline for personal writing in 31 years. At age 8, my first poem was published in the school paper. “I want to be a writer when I grow up,” I had declared then—and even majored in creative writing in college. But life intervened. I had to give up that dream, always yearning for the right circumstances.
Discovering Ruby, just as when Sarah appeared, I concluded I did not have to accept limitations. Shortly after, my first personal essay was splashed across the front page of a Philadelphia weekly newspaper. The editor took me to lunch and said, “You have a voice.” Finally! My writing eventually started to include published stories. Soon my first story about centenarians was published.
It was three-and-a-half decades before Sadie Delany joined Sarah and Ruby as a life coach for me, although my study of centenarians had never ceased. In fact, a quarter of a century earlier, her newly published book, Having our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First Hundred Years, was added to my collection.
These sisters, Sarah (104) and Bessie (102) were the daughters of a man born into slavery. They went on to become successful professionals. Sadie was the first black woman to teach domestic science on the high school level in New York. Bessie was the second black woman licensed to practice dentistry in New York.
Their book still sits on my shelf—but it took 25 years for an article about her second book, On My Own at 107, stashed away in a folder, to hit me between the eyes.
Finding Sarah in my early 30s as I was rebuilding my life was a gift. Having Ruby cheer me on with my writing career was yet another. But rediscovering Sadie’s On My Own at 107 as I was pondering my own end-of-life issues was the most profound of centenarian synchronicities.
Although my husband and I were both doing well, age-old concerns about his passing felt suddenly more real at 75. Having no siblings or children of my own, I wondered who would be there for me. My deepest worry was: Could I be there for myself with the courage, dignity, and adaptability that my centenarians mustered.
Bessie passed at 104, leaving Sadie alone at 106. What had just been a book title for me 25 years earlier morphed into a template for managing my worst fears.
Yes, Sadie grieved deeply. However, she evolved from despair to hope when she decided to write a book paying tribute to Bessie, giving new focus and purpose to her life.
She ended her book saying: “I still believe it’s up to each person to make the best of life, to keep trying, no matter what. A lot of it is how you look at it. A lot of it is attitude.” If my husband passes first, I am hoping I head to the finish line mirroring Sadie’s resilience.
I wonder who will be joining Sarah, Ruby, and Sadie for my next centenarian synchronicity.
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