Lessons From A 92-Year-Old

Conceptual illustration featuring a tortoise that is a brain.

In my head, Kelly was always old.

I remember visiting him and my Granny Margie at their two-bedroom apartment in East London, South Africa when I was too small to reach the buzzer on the gate of their apartment building and too weak to heave it open after the mechanical lock released. My dad, uncle, aunt, or whoever else was around would boost me up to type in the code I still remember. But even back then, Kelly was old.

He had more wrinkles than I could count (I tried once), skin so soft I worried it might fray, and greying, milky eyes that sparkled with life until the last time I saw him. He carried a handkerchief in his pocket and dressed like a poster boy for 1950’s leisurewear. Always patterned and immaculately ironed, Kelly tucked his short-sleeved button-downs into his slacks or the wide shorts he liked to pair with knee-length socks. When he wasn’t at home, he exclusively wore moccasin-style shoes with a tassel on top and argued that no greater shoe had or ever would be created.

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, faded yellow lounge chair.

Kelly spent his days watching cricket on TV (with the volume too loud), taking long (slow) walks through town, 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 a meter and a half apart.
She’d tell him again, but louder.
And he’d huff, “I’m not deaf.”

The only proof I’d seen that Kelly wasn’t always old existed in a frame that hung in their dining room. The photograph, looking as though it had a sepia filter applied to it, immortalised an afternoon what must have been decades ago when he and Granny Margie had a picnic on the beach.

If you stare at the image long enough, you may see the resemblance between the young, smiling people in bathing suits and the duo in the living room — but, at least to me, it wasn’t obvious. I suppose I’d agree that Kelly dressed like that young man and had the same I’m-up-to-something smile but it was harder to believe the woman he was was lounging beside was Granny Margie. My great grandmothers only likeness to her supposed younger self was the wedding ring on her finger and the pearls around her neck.

The lessons Kelly taught me have been written with a permeant marker in my mind.

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. When he next told me that knowledge could be cemented in one's mind, I reasoned, “Unless you have brain damage.”
Kelly only laughed. The sound rattled, like loose change in his chest. “Yes,” he agreed, “that just might do the trick.”
But his words stuck with me. Knowledge is power.

Kelly had a way of saying things that made them sound like an 11th or 12th commandment.
Once, 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 — but somehow got his way.
The Chev, like Kelly, was old and, unlike him, blue. It had cream coloured leather seats and a battery that continually gave trouble. I don’t remember taking that ride. I don’t remember where we went or what we saw but I recall walking out of the apartment building together and how, between whistling a merry tune and tossing his car keys from hand to hand, Kelly told me, solemnly, “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 latter part of Kelly’s life, when his hands would tremble as he lifted his mug to his mouth, he certainly wasn’t setting off to climb mountains or go swimming with sharks.

He announced, after one of our afternoon walks, that we were going to defy the odds. Or rather, that he was about to defy the odds but that I could stick around, cheer him on, and — he joked — call a doctor if necessary.
I pressed the call button for the elevator. “What are we doing?”
“We,” he said then paused for a beat, to give me time to brace for the impact of his idea, “are taking the stairs to the flat.”

Four flights of stairs may not sound like much — but that’s only because you know you can do it. If you were Granny Margie, who took 11 seconds to stand up from her chair (I counted once), four flights would seem impossible. If you were carrying armfuls of groceries or walking with crutches, four flights may sound like a challenge. To Kelly, who was 90-something and hadn’t yet had his afternoon nap, four flights of stairs sounded like an adventure.
When the elevator doors opened, we started up the stairs. 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 recall the last conversation we had, our last walk, or our final adventure but the excitement I felt each time we pulled up to the flat at the beginning of our holiday in East London is always within reach.

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. He was up there and up to something (always was). Sure enough, as we’d stand in front of the gate and punch in the nine-digit code to get inside, 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 us. 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 taught me to find magic in every moment.

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