Lessons From A 92 Year Old

Conceptual illustration featuring a tortoise that is a brain.
Art by John Holcroft

In my head, Kelly was always old. I can remember visiting him and Granny Margie in East London, South Africa, when I was too small to reach the buzzer on the gate of their apartment building. My dad, uncle, aunt or, whoever else was around, would boost me up to type in the code I can still remember today. But even back then, Kelly was old.

He had more wrinkles than I could count (I tried once) and greying, milky eyes that still sparkled with life the last time I saw him. He carried a handkerchief in his pocket and dressed like a poster-boy for 1950’s leisurewear. His shirts, always button-downs and always patterned, were immaculately ironed and tucked into his slacks, or knee-length shorts, and accompanied by a moccasin style shoe.

He acted like an old man too. Which is to say, he walked slowly and had the sleeping schedule of a cat. He’d be up until way after I was tucked into bed, woke before the sun and took frequent naps in his big, yellow lounge chair.

Kelly spent his days watching cricket on TV (with the volume too loud), taking long (slow) walks and running the buildings’ gossip mill (to minimal success) (because he spoke at the volume of someone using a megaphone).
My Granny Margie often told him to keep it down. “There’s no need to inflict your deafness on everyone else who lives in the building.”
To which he’d reply, “What? What are you saying?” even though their chairs were only a meter and a half apart.
She’d tell him again, louder.
And he’d reply, “I’m not deaf.”

The only proof (I saw) that Kelly wasn’t always old was a picture that hung in the dining room. It looked like it had a sepia filter applied to it (it hadn’t) and captured an afternoon long ago, when he and Granny Margie were having a picnic on the beach. If you stare at the picture long enough, you might see the resemblance between those young, smiling people in bathing suits and the duo in the living room — but (at least to me) it wasn’t obvious.
I guess Kelly still dressed how he did back then and had the same I’m-up-to-something smile, but Granny Margie’s only likeness to her younger-self was the wedding ring on her finger and the pearls around her neck.

I can’t recall every conversation we had, but the ones I remember have been written with permeant marker in my mind. There’ll be no getting rid of the many lessons Kelly taught me.

Most notably, the one-liner he said so often I could recite it back to him before I knew how to spell recite.
“Once you have knowledge, it can never be taken away from you,” he’d say.
It took me years to come up with what I believed was a solid flaw in his theory. And the next time he told me knowledge could never be taken away, I reasoned, “Unless you have brain damage.”
Kelly only laughed. The sound rattled in his chest. “Yes,” he said, “that might do the trick.”
But his words stuck with me.
Knowledge is power.

He had a way of saying things that made them sound a little bit like an 11th or 12th commandment. Like the time he convinced my dad to let him take us for a drive through town (he probably shouldn’t have been allowed to drive — hence the convincing that was required).
The Chev was old (like him) and blue (unlike him) with cream leather seats and a battery that continually gave trouble.
As we walked out of the apartment building together, between whistling a merry tune and tossing his car keys from hand to hand, he told me, “It doesn’t matter how old I get, as long as there’s a heart beating in this chest and bones that keep me up, this adventure won’t end.”

I don’t know what constitutes an adventure for most people, but in the later part of his life, Kelly wasn’t setting off to climb mountains or go swimming with sharks.
After joining him on one of his walks, Kelly announced we’d be defying the odds. Or rather, that he’d be defying the odds but that I could cheer him on.
“What are we doing?” I asked, pressing the call button for the elevator.
“We,” he said, like I ought to brace for the impact of his idea, “are taking the stairs.”
Four flights of stairs may not sound like much — but that’s only because you know you can do it. Four flights can sound impossible if you’re my Granny Margie, who takes 11 seconds to stand up from her chair (I counted once). Four flights can sound like a lot if you’re using crutches.
If you’re Kelly, who’s 90-something and hasn’t had yet had an afternoon nap, four flights of stairs can sound like an adventure.
The elevator doors opened.
We started up the stairs instead.
It wasn’t easy, but we made it.
He made it.
It taught me that everyone’s mountain is different.

When Kelly passed away, I was 11. He was 92.

I don’t remember the last conversation we had, our last walk together or our final adventure, but I remember how I felt every time we pulled up to the flat at the beginning of a holiday in East London.

We’d get out of the car, and my eyes would immediately go skyward. I’d search the rows of fourth floor balconies for signs of my great grandfather, knowing he was up there, even if I couldn’t see him; knowing he was up to something (because he always was).
And sure enough, as we’d stand in front of the gate and punch in the nine-digit code to get inside the building, water balloons would rain down around us — splat! splat! splat! — and from up above, we could hear Kelly laugh.
“You’re never too old for some fun!” he’d call down.
Sometimes, he’d miss. Sometimes, we’d get up to the fourth floor with wet hair. Sometimes, when he didn’t have balloons, he’d pour a bucket of water over the balcony rail instead. Sometimes, it made me laugh. Sometimes, it made me cold.
It always made me happy.

Kelly had a way of finding magic in every moment.

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Writer of words, eater of cupcakes and proud supporter of sweatpants. https://linktr.ee/stormonthehorizon