When we're young, there is this whole layer of people above us who buffer us from death because older people are supposed to die first. That seems to just be the natural order of things. Periodically one of our generation has an untimely passing but we chalk that up to the vagaries of fate and go back to believing that we are pretty immortal because of that buffering layer above us.
Then our parents' generation starts dying -- slowly at first, then more rapidly -- until one day we wake up to the unnerving fact that there are simply not that many left in the buffer above us. That's the day we start not only reading obituaries much more thoroughly, but more than a little surreptitiously checking out how old the deceased was. If younger, we breathe a sigh of relief in the knowledge that we obviously possess tougher genes because we outlived them. If older, we breathe a sigh of relief in the knowledge that there is still an older generation that needs to pass before it's our turn. At our age, we move rapidly past the notice and on to the comics.
Two of the last barriers between my generation and the one directly above me fell last week. Suddenly I'm feeling as though I'm rapidly becoming the buffering layer.
The whole world knew Elizabeth Taylor. In my youth, she and Richard Burton were the Aniston-Pitt-Jolie scandal of their time. Elizabeth Taylor was what can only be called a tough old broad who lived life on her terms, walked the edge a lot, and ended up being an icon of how to make your life count through her amazing work with AIDS. At a time when it was still the world's dirty little secret, Elizabeth Taylor came out and made it clear that it wasn't "God's revenge on gays" but a terrible, horrible disease that indiscriminately struck young and old, male and female, and needed to be addressed.
Here's the other thing about Elizabeth Taylor that I find more than a little admirable. Despite battles with drugs and alcohol and more marriages than most polygamous Mormons could tolerate, she managed to have and raise kids out of the spotlight who have apparently gone on to decent lives without making headlines for excesses like multi-substance abuse and an inability to remember to wear underwear when going out.
Another tough old broad died last week down in Homer. Though Elizabeth Taylor probably wore more makeup on one day than Charlotte used in a lifetime, I'm betting that they would have formed a fast friendship had they ever been privileged to meet.
Charlotte Allen Rogers was a nurse at the Barrow hospital when I first arrived there. She was a single mom in the 1950s, when being a single mom was even harder than it is today. She backpacked with her kids through Europe before my generation had grown up enough to discover the joys of doing that, with or without kids. Charlotte raised cherry tomatoes in her Barrow apartment and the vines would run around her entire living room with stakes stuck at every nook and cranny to keep them up and healthy. Once a year she harvested them and hosted a great pizza and salad party at her place.
Charlotte built herself a cabin in Homer and lived there as an independent, and to be totally honest, at times crotchety old lady until she could no longer ski to her mailbox every winter. She picked blueberries in Denali and kayaked down rivers long after most of us were finding enough adventure in just making it to the bathroom at night without walking into a door.
And when Charlotte decided she didn't want to live with tubes and hospital beds after breaking her hip, she went out on her own terms. She refused food, had one beer per meal instead, said goodbye to her family and friends and then closed her eyes and went on to the next adventure.
So I guess that buffering generation still has things to teach us. These two grand dames taught me how to live with zest and passion and how to die without regrets. I hope they meet in heaven. Even God would want to eavesdrop on that conversation.
Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," her memoir of 28 years in Barrow. Web site, www.elisepatkotak.com.