Doug's Column

by Doug Ferguson
April 1996

Mary Beth sat alone in her threadbare apartment, vainly swatting the air with a fan she had purchased at a long-forgotten yard sale. Her wicker rocker -- its seat frayed with age -- swayed back and forth in front of a closed window as she watched children roughhousing in the spray of an open fire hydrant.

The stifling air that hung heavy against her dampened skin was suffocating, yet she did not move to open a window. The dangers that lurked outside on the Chicago streets seemed more real to her than the deadly heat that threatened to snatch away her every breath. Water pooled beneath an empty refrigerator idled by yet another power outage. A thermometer by the window read 106 degrees.

In a city that was built for cold, residents desperately struggled to escape record heat. But no one thought to check on Mary Beth. The rotary phone she kept by her side never rang. No family members called to see how she was. No neighbors stopped by "just to say hello." And in a scenario that played itself out in slightly different variations almost 570 times that week, Mary Beth quietly closed her eyes and died.

I remember what it was like during that heat wave as I dashed from my air conditioned apartment on the Northside to my air conditioned office downtown. My shirt was soaked within minutes of leaving my building, and I scurried from shadow to shadow of the small awnings that shielded the sidewalk. Shimmering asphalt melted the soles of my shoes as I walked to the elevated platform of the Red Line.

The heat was a nuisance to me, especially as I was herded through the train's doors and into a stuffy and overcrowded car. But the commute only lasted ten minutes, and within half an hour I was behind my desk at the IBM Building, where the thermostats were set at 68 degrees. When I was home again and drinking a cold Coke in front of the Weather Channel, I complained to my roommate about the heat as two window units turned my living room into an oversized ice box.

After the worst had passed and reports began trickling in about the many victims of Chicago's heat wave -- most of them old and alone -- I was surprised by the magnitude of the loss that had occurred. "Where were their families?" I asked myself. "Where were their friends?" Then I remembered the old woman who lived down the hall from me. Every time we had passed one another in the elevator, she always seemed eager for conversation. I hadn't stopped by to check on her. The thought hadn't even crossed my mind. "Did she have an air conditioner?" I wondered. "Was she one of the victims?" The questions tugged at me every time I passed her door over the next few weeks, but I couldn't muster the courage to knock.

I'm not sure why, but -- in times past -- I have felt threatened by older folks. Maybe it's the way that their swollen and twisted joints remind me of the inevitability of aging ... or the way that their wrinkled skin gives notice to the often undetectable passage of time. But, for whatever the reason, I often have expressed the belief that I never want to grow old. In trying not to acknowledge the fact that even my young body is showing signs of aging (just a touch of gray in my bangs), I sometimes have avoided contact with anyone much older than my parents. Even my own grandmother has -- on occasion -- seemed to exist as a threat to my "eternal youth."

Recently, however, the twist of fate that may have granted me my wish of never growing old also has opened my eyes to how naive I have been in my outlook toward aging. Growing old, after all, is not something we all get the chance to experience. Those who successfully navigate the pitfalls of their youth deserve respect and veneration for their accomplishment, not the neglect they so often receive now. I wonder why I -- and so many other people -- didn't understand that concept when Mary Beth died a needless death, alone in her Chicago apartment.

Now that I face the very real prospect of dying young, the fear I once had of growing old has been replaced by curiosity -- and even envy. When I think of all the things I've experienced in my 24 years, it's hard to imagine what it must be like to have lived three times that long. To have witnessed the end of World War I. To have existed in a time before televisions, jet planes and computers. To have seen the Berlin Wall being built, instead of being torn down. Just think of the events we will witness if we're given the opportunity to live so long.

Although I didn't knock on that old woman's door during Chicago's first heat wave, I did stop by later that month as the mercury climbed dangerously close to 100 degrees. When I did, it was apparent that other Chicagoans also had learned from Mother Nature's tragic lesson. The old woman's door was already open, propped against an electric fan that circulated cool air through the doorway. Inside, a young volunteer held the woman's hands and listened to tails of her youth.

Without disturbing them, I listened for awhile -- too embarrassed to interrupt the woman's stories. As her voice rose and fell in a nostalgic telling of summers past, the old woman didn't seem so old anymore. Her eyes glowed with a spark that spoke of inner beauty, the type that only richens with time.

With my silly fear forgotten, I left them alone with her memories. There would be no more Mary Beths here.

Doug Ferguson is a third-year student in the School of Law at the University of North Carolina and a member of the Human Rights Campaign Fund Board of Governors. His columns initially appeared weekly in the Daily Tar Heel, and are appearing in Oasis in their original, chronological order.
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