I used to love a good house party. Sure, I loved a night out too, but there's nothing like necking a bottle of wine and dry humping a Czech exchange student while someone does the worm to Abba and your housemate pretends to inhale laughing gas for social approval while your other housemate keeps saying things like 'they need to start scoring more from open play,' even though he knows nothing about football and the worrying thing is he's in the bath fully clothed and he's French and no one is talking about football anyway.
With these sterling hallmarks of top party in mind, I decided to go to my neighbour Raquel's do. Granted, none of those hallmarks would probably surface, but I felt compelled to go nonetheless. She'd been in her house ten years and had decided to up sticks and move to Bridlington; finger food, champagne and long, ululated farewells were to be order of the evening. I was having a real off-day, health-wise, and a litany of new symptoms had begun; that day, I could barely see a thing out of my right eye, but I figured that whatever 'episode' I'd had to set my eye off had clearly already happened, so an hour or so in a house across the road wouldn't do me any further harm.
'The thing is, Rosie, I always told myself that by the time I was 60 I'd be living by the sea. Now it's been eight years since I reached that milestone and here I am, still, in bloody suburbia.'
Raquel is your Rula Lenska type; tall, glamorous, impossibly posh. I was the first to arrive, and she mixed me a drink with the causal swing of someone just back from a cruise, maybe one where the captain takes a shine to you and the whole trip is a slew of gin-fuelled indiscretions and the odd fjord.
'I don't know.' She sat down beside me and scooped a fallen red lock back into its bouffant. 'I have never had a plan, my dear, that's the thing. I have never organised. I'm a go-with-the-wind type, you know, so anything I've ever done has been something that has fallen into my lap. I thought it was high time I got my act together and fucked right off to the coast.'
I love it when older people swear, especially when they do it with veteran aplomb and the vowels they produce are naturally longer.
'See if I had my time again, now see if I were say, your age, I'd have liked to live somewhere in the Far East, you know, Saigon, or perhaps Peking. You ought to travel, you know, while you're young and fit- you don't want to be stuck round here forever.'
I thought about pulling her up on her retro geography, but then both of us would have been in some way guilty of ageism. We talk about ageism as a form of discrimination against older people, whether in work, or on a societal level: the elderly are a group that all too often we either fettishise, patronise, or else neglect completely, making decisions on their behalf or telling them what to do. And we tell them they look great for their age. And it is shameful and deplorable. But I also believe that to project one's own ambitions and experiences onto someone younger leads to gross and inaccurate assumptions about that person's life, and can be damaging. Raquel didn't know I'd been ill, granted, but telling someone what they ought to do on the basis of their age and assumed health is unreasonable. It immediately negates the person's agency, confidence, preferences, quality of mental and physical health, financial security ... I could go on.
Now at several points during the editing process, I've looked back at my previous paragraphs, where I described Raquel, and have noticed that my analogies and reference points actually smack of the same thing. I have turned her into a rudimentary stereotype of someone of her age and class, meaning she will never be anything more to you, reader. I feel ashamed of my blatant hypocrisy. But I have decided to leave my error as it was, because I think it helps me hammer home the point; I think if we don't spend a lot of time with people who are much older than us, we look to stereotypes and caricatures to help us relate. Likewise, if an elderly person doesn't have much experience of relating with someone much younger, outside of perhaps grandchildren, they might look to their younger, or their ideal younger selves, as a reference point. Advice is a form of nostalgia, and all. I know that I am generalising rabidly, and this is based largely on my own experience, but I think each generation has a responsibility to challenge, and in doing so, broaden, their conceptions of the others.
As a result of that evening, my view of age, especially I think the way I relate with older people, has certainly been tested. I told myself I'd steer away from being controversial and challenging in favour of being deferent in conversation, perhaps titillating if I dared; for me, that is how respect your elders is defined, based on the fact that my grandmother doesn't ever like me to answer back. But in life, I frequently challenge people whose views I don't agree with, albeit respectfully, and with a good deal of consideration; so why would I apply my grandma's version of respect to all other elderly people? Surely that is less respectful, all things considered. I also bollocked myself for being surprised when Raquel used a popular music channel as her source of tunes, and encouraged her friend to mix her champagne with vodka because it feels like cocaine, darling, or so I hear!
I hope I get over this weird illness by the time I reach old age, whatever old age might mean. I dread the idea that I'll be battling pain and fatigue all my life, and wish there was something to be done for those that have to. But life continues to teach me things, and I am thankful to be alive to learn the lessons, even if stuff is currently crap and I have to leave a house party after an hour and a half and soda water. That is not the young person I want to be. Yet that said, I need to abolish my own age-based judgements, and accept that right now, that is the young person I am. This is my version of youth, and it is what it is. Raquel, and every bugger else, is living their version of old age, and middle age, and everything in between, and if I don't pull apart my hackneyed notions of what that should look like, I can't expect anyone to do the same for me.
These are the random paths that chronic illness have led me down; expect silliness and deep reflection in equal measure. Impaired health can bring pain, despair, uncertainty and a bit of unexpected joy; seek solace here if you crave some light relief from campaigning/suffering.