Better Late Than Never

by Celeste Cheyney

I can’t recall all the reasons why those two grandchildren made me so happy when they were young, but I can remember a few. For one, when we were together I saw the world through their eyes and every experience was filled with excitement. When they jumped up and down like Chihuahuas as I entered the room, it was certainly good for the ego. While we were laughing at the monkeys in the Bronx Zoo and the arthritis pain mysteriously disappeared, the health benefits were clear. Whenever I brought Chinese takeout, which they devoured with gusto, I was able to help the family with almost no work at all. When they were a bit older and the boy won the second grade chess tournament or the girl pirouetted gracefully at her dance recital, it made me beam with pride.

Most important of all, though, they gave me an excuse to shop. That provided the best escape from anything that was causing anxiety. It didn’t matter if I was searching for a good deal on a crib on Amazon or wandering aimlessly around Barnes and Noble before picking up a copy of Goodnight Moon. Even buying a Spider Man t-shirt made me feel good inside. Of course finding something of educational value brought the most satisfaction. Stocking up on those Baby Einstein DVDs couldn’t guarantee the kids would turn out to be geniuses, but it might bestow some advantage one day when they applied to the Ivy League. Shopping might be a woman’s thing, but what man can resist that LEGO Technic Ocean Explorer set for his grandson? Because you’re doing all of this for them, it never seems like a waste of money or time. You’re investing in their future, which is a truly noble deed. You’ve earned the right to the instant gratification that shopping brings, without the slightest bit of guilt. That’s more than you get from buying another designer bag or custom-made shirt that you don’t need, or even a book about Spinoza.

Somehow, my son and his wife had managed to have those two children by the time they were 35. It was like some kind of a miracle, considering that most of their peers were out drinking and dancing every night. My daughter Alanna, who is eight years younger than Matt, was in no hurry either. When she was approaching 35, nothing seemed farther from her mind than becoming a parent. By then, the grandchildren were doing what was normal at their age. Not only were they too busy with homework, test prep, hockey practice, video games, and friends to want to see me for more than ten minutes, now they were capable of buying whatever they needed without any help. That, of course, left a huge gap in my life. I didn’t want it to evolve into a full-scale crisis. Wasn’t it a daughter’s duty to fill such a gap?

Alanna’s attitude shouldn’t have been a surprise. It wasn’t only that her friends were postponing parenthood as if it were some kind of a curse. It was my own fault, too. My advice to both the kids had always been to follow my example and avoid settling down too early. Stay in school as long as you can; the more degrees, the better. Find work that you feel passionate about. Most important of all, fill your life with adventure. Don’t start a family until you’ve stayed overnight in a yurt in Uzbekistan, ridden a camel across the desert near Fez, and experienced the majesty of the Taj Mahal at dawn. They had both followed my advice, and I was proud of them. However, now Alanna was almost 35 and she was still following it. Did she and her husband really need to spend their honeymoon in Thailand and Cambodia? As if that wasn’t bad enough, they were planning visits to Antarctica and Bora Bora. Maybe my advice wasn’t so good after all. I could have stressed the advantages of settling down early. You get all the hard work over with when you’re young and energetic. You can always do your traveling later. Also, didn’t they know that if anything is an adventure, it’s living with children? I should have said something about that.

This wasn’t only about me, though. Alanna and her husband seemed to adore other people’s kids. I wanted them to become part of the cycle of life. I didn’t want them to wait too long and miss out on having a family of their own. Hadn’t they heard of something called a biological time clock?

Of course, once you’ve stopped paying their bills, what your offspring do with their lives is none of your business. You never ask questions, because you might just end up offending them and then they won’t call for a month. You can’t give them advice, either, even though you’re the one who knows what’s best for them. Still, nobody said you couldn’t give it some thought.

I told myself to be patient. After all, these days people are starting families well into their forties. In educated circles, it’s becoming the norm. It should come as no surprise that having grandchildren late in life is, too. My eighty-two-year-old friend has a new grandchild, his first. This is no old geezer who shuffles along with a walker. He is seen in the park every day sprinting behind a jogging stroller, with a huge grin. Since 80 is the new 60, nobody thinks it’s the slightest bit odd. His comment about it is “Better late than never.”

I realized that Alanna and her spouse might be trying desperately to have children, without success. Maybe they’ve tried everything from acupuncture to hormone therapy, and nothing has worked. If they do IVF they could end up with triplets, or even worse. Then again, they could always adopt. That would be a mitzvah in a world where so many children are without homes. I could learn to enjoy shopping for a child who doesn’t look like me.

I had to accept the possibility that they might not want children of their own. It’s not for everyone. When you’ve seen Angkor Watt, a trip to Disney World might not seem so exciting. Children are unpredictable. They whine and cry and spill ice cream all over the couch. These days they have so much paraphernalia that there isn’t much room for anything else. Being child-free does have its advantages. My girlfriends who opted for that are quite happy with their lives. They’ve had fulfilling careers and their apartments are filled with fine paintings and priceless antiques. Even now, some of them still have svelte figures, few wrinkles, and not a single white hair.

I had to admit that it would be absurd to become a grandmother again at this age. Unless I live to almost 100, I won’t be here to see if Alanna’s children make it to the Ivy League, so I won’t know if my investments in them have actually paid off. Even if I practice Mindful Meditation and twist myself into the Cobra position every day, I probably won’t make it that far. Still, I do remember something Aunt Lill said many years ago, when she was in her seventies, “Oy, I’m like an old car. I need new parts.” These days, almost everyone of a certain age has new parts. It almost seems natural. However, if most of me is bionic, will I still be me?

Then, of course, there were global issues to consider – rising sea levels, hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, as well as income inequality and the immigrant crisis, and even the threat of nuclear war. Maybe it isn’t fair to bring a child into such an imperfect world.

Well, that was settled. I had to accept that my daughter was not likely to have children. It was probably best that way. I would have to learn to live with it. I found a designer bag on Amazon and placed my order.

About four months after she turned 35, when Alanna called to announce that she was pregnant, I almost fainted. It was tempting to say, “Well, it’s about time!” but I just blurted out, “Yes!” It‘s amazing how quickly all those negative thoughts disappeared. Once again, I would experience all the benefits that a young child brings. Most important of all, I would have somebody new to shop for. As soon as the call was over, I headed for Barnes and Noble to pick up a brand-new copy of Goodnight Moon. Better late than never. Much, much better.


Celeste Cheyney worked for many years with the hearing impaired, and had a memoir about a deaf colleague published by Gallaudet University Press.  I enjoy sharing my own experiences, which tend to be somewhat unusual.




The Ten O’clock Class

by Celeste Cheyney


This wasn’t supposed to be happening to someone like me. I’d always had good habits and had been blessed with good health. I had recovered well from the surgery performed in early August. Now it was November, and I was supposed to be in class, engaging in profound discussions about Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. However, here I was, stuck at home with pneumonia, on my fourth round of antibiotics, having chest pains and shortness of breath and sleeping all day. Not only was this scary, it was a waste of time! My friend and I had planned a European riverboat cruise for May. I couldn’t allow this to interfere with it. I needed to get back to my life.

I called the office every day. This doctor, being compassionate, always returned my calls. I asked questions and pleaded for help. You’re one of the best pulmonologists in New York,I said in my sweetest voice. I know you won’t let me down.

After a while he must have been tired of our little routine. “Okay, you win,he said finally. I’ll send you a script for a pulmonary rehab program. However, you must make a promise. Unless it’s an emergency, you will not call this office again. See you for a checkup in three months.Success at last.

When the script arrived, I read it right away. Mild emphysemic changes to the lungs, accompanied by two nodules. That first part could mean that I had emphysema. That was a form of that horrible condition Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD. Maybe the doctor hadn’t mentioned it, because he knew it would terrify me. I couldn’t call him, so I began to read scores of websites. I always worry a lot and expect the worst to happen, so I fixated on the most alarming claims. COPD is usually caused by smoking but not always. It is irreversible. Your lung capacity deteriorates over time until you can barely catch your breath. Some drugs that relieve symptoms may cause suicidal tendencies. Nodules in the lungs could mean you have lung cancer. Life expectancy after a diagnosis of COPD is two to four years.

By the time the paper work for the rehab program went through, it was the middle of December. The first day at rehab was quite challenging. A short, stout middle-aged woman with closely cropped brown hair was waiting at the door. She resembled an angry bulldog ready to attack. Her hands were on her hips and she was frowning as if she were going to reprimand me.

Hello. I’m Olga, the senior respiratory therapist here,she uttered. The ten o’clock class is about to begin.She pointed to a large clock on the wall. You are scheduled to be here for one hour every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday starting at 10 o’clock for twelve weeks. You must be here on the dot. For everyone’s safety, you will use the equipment exactly as you’re told. We do not want any accidents. Do you understand?It had been a long time since I was treated like a pupil in grammar school.

The woman went on. The disease you have is a terrible one, and it will get worse with time. All we can do is try to help you live with it.  Well that was reassuring.  There was something about her behavior that was familiar. Who was it that she resembled? One thing was clear. This was not someone you crossed.

A slightly younger, pudgy woman with long bleached blonde hair and a round flushed face dashed over, as if to rescue me.

Hi, I’m Kathleen,she chimed with a smile. I work with Olga.She had a friendly, relaxed manner. It was easy to feel comfortable with her. This one might make it possible to survive here.

We stayed in the corridor and Olga described the program. We provide an aerobic exercise regimen, monitor your vital signs, and teach you coping skills. You’re thin, so you will need advice about nutrition. You will have to eat six small meals a day. Otherwise you could waste away to nothing.  For my entire life I had proudly avoided noshing. Now eating every few hours was good for me? 

The six-minute test to see how much distance I could cover came next. I scurried around and around in a circle while Olga shouted out numbers and Kathleen wrote them down. I hadn’t seen anything like this since my fifth-grade gym class.

We entered the rehab center, a long, narrow room whose walls were plastered with posters and charts labeled COPD. Each long wall was lined with exercise equipment treadmills, arm bikes, stationary bikes, and elliptical machines. One corner had a low shelf with different sized free weights and small exercise posters above them. Hanging from a hook was a jump rope tied in a loop.  What could that be for?  Under it were oxygen cylinders lined up like a marching army. A hunched over old man was going on about how much he hated Obama while a blonde woman with a rasping voice kept saying,Yeah.

Meet your classmates,said Kathleen. Tom, who was exercising on an arm bike, greeted me with a smile. He had a ruddy complexion and white hair pulled back in a pony tail. On the floor next to him was an oxygen cylinder with narrow tubes running to his nostrils. It’s my own fault,he sighed with a shrug. Two packs a day for sixty years. Now that I’m eighty, it’s caught up with me.

Rose, the woman with the rasping voice, was on the arm bike next to him. She was a short, tubby blonde, probably in her seventies, with a pumpkin-shaped face. She smiled and greeted me warmly. She, too, was attached to an oxygen cylinder that was by her side. A pack and a half,she confessed.

Loretta was on the treadmill. She was a tiny woman with a halo of voluminous frizzy red hair. She seemed anxious and depressed but managed to smile. I quit five years ago, but I can still barely walk from the kitchen to the living room without getting short of breath.

Carl, the hunched over old man, was going on now about how much he hated Hillary. He shuffled over and scowled at me. “I’m eighty-eight and my habits are none of your business,he barked.

I had begged for the opportunity to be in this program, but actually being here was surreal. Aside from puffing on a few Marlboros with friends in high school, I had never smoked a day in my life!   What was I doing in a pulmonary rehabilitation program with people like this? They were so different from anyone I knew. What would we possibly have to talk about? They were here because they had made a bad choice. I had made some bad choices in my life too, but when it came to health I’d  done everything right. Still, if I actually had this terrible disease, I was one of these people. I would have to make the best of it.

Olga handed me a rescue inhaler and a folder containing information and homework. She said that was all for today, then added, On Monday, be here at 10 o’clock on the dot.

This looks like an excellent program,I said, forcing a smile. I had to make it work.

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I was there at 10 o’clock on the dot. It was all I had scheduled for the winter. I hated missing study groups, but it was flu season and being exposed to lots of people was too risky. Well ,going to rehab would be better than sleeping all day.  

Olga expected everyone to follow her orders. You couldn’t go one minute over the allotted time on a machine. You couldn’t change any of the settings. If you began to swing your arms while walking on the treadmill, she saw it even if she was entering data into the computer and the back of her head was facing you. Stop that and hold on. You’ll fall off and break your neck!she shouted. If anyone slouched, it was,Sit up straight!

At first I felt like an outsider, but soon I was chatting with everyone. After a while I actually looked forward to being there. When you walked in everybody welcomed you. When one of us had a good oxygen reading, we all cheered. The conversation was not intellectual and we avoided politics, but there was plenty to talk about an episode of Blue Bloods, real estate near Orlando, a Knicks game, a recipe for spare ribs. I learned about everyone’s life. These were decent people who had faced enormous challenges. They had this terrible disease and were putting up a good fight. I shouldn’t have been such a snob. I shouldn’t have been so judgmental about their smoking. If I’d been in their shoes, I might have smoked too!

Friday was Olga’s day off. Kathleen was joined by her pal Daisy, the free-spirited therapist with long wavy white hair. We spent most of the time laughing about our common enemy.  Loretta and I started swinging our arms on the treadmill. We ramped up the speed. Daisy explained where the rope hanging on the hook had come from. We gave it to Nurse Ratched as a joke last Christmas, so she could beat the patients into submission. She didn’t think it was funny.

So that was why Olga seemed familiar. She resembled the infamous Nurse Ratched! Actually, that wasn’t quite fair. Nurse Ratched was a cold heartless tyrant who destroyed her patients’ egos. Olga made insensitive comments and treated you like a child, but she didn’t mean to inflict any harm.  According to Daisy she had been a gym teacher in a Catholic school. Well, that explained a lot. She can’t help herself,said Kathleen.

I played it down, but I was always able to exercise more vigorously than anyone else. After a while my breathing was better and my stamina was increasing. Maybe soon I would be able to go back to my regular gym. If I actually had COPD, how odd to be doing so well. 

In mid-March I had my last session. I was kind of sorry to be leaving. I would miss the camaraderie and felt a bit guilty about leaving the others behind. This was not the 10 o’clock class I would have chosen, but it had given me what I needed a place where I could regain my strength, learn how to cope, and have some fun. Now it was time for the visit to the pulmonologist.

Well you kept your promise. You didn’t call the office,he said with a grin. How was rehab?

It helped me in more ways than one. Thanks for getting me into the program.Then I blurted out the important questions.

Do I actually have COPD? If I do, will I be able to fly to Europe? Will I need my own oxygen supply on the plane?

 Did I ever say you have COPD?

Well, yes, kind of. Your script said mild emphysemic changes in the lungs.”

 He started to laugh. Of course you have mild emphysemic changes in your lungs. So do a lot of    people your age. It’s not just the knees that make it hard for seniors to climb stairs. That doesn’t mean you have anything serious.

Oh?I hadn’t really taken that in. I was too busy worrying about that other issue. What about the nodules?I asked.  

You do not have COPD, so to get you into a program I had to be creative. Without the nodules in the diagnosis you wouldn’t have been accepted. Don’t worry about them. They’re quite small, and small nodules are almost always benign. I was pretty sure your symptoms were due to the pneumonia and that eventually it would resolve itself. I admire your spirit and perseverance. That’s why I wrote the script. I knew the rehab program would help you. I figured if you wanted something that badly, you deserved to have it. Flying won’t be a problem for you. Have a great time in Europe. He added some advice. You shouldn’t worry so much. And when you read something, be more careful about the conclusions you draw.


While working with a remarkable woman who was Jewish, British, and Deaf,  I was inspired to write a memoir about the woman’s experiences in England during World War II. It was published by Gallaudet University Press as part of Deaf Women’s Lives. Always inspired by the IRP, I am delighted to be part of it again.