Laura Briggs bought the first mirror at a drugstore in Phoenix, and in the years since then, after moving to Salt Lake City, she has added another 24. Now they're all nailed to the walls of her tiny apartment, exactly at eye level if you're a person who doesn't stand.
Don't be afraid to look at yourself, they remind her. And while you're at it, don't be afraid to look inside the plastic envelope taped to the back of your front door, at the instructions announcing that Laura Briggs is donating her body to science. She has written her name on the donor form, holding the pen in her crippled hand. She once asked an artist at the downtown Farmers Market to draw a portrait of those hands, the fingers bent at odd angles like a Rockette's legs in midkick.
Aging, death, your body: Don't turn away. For good measure, wear a yellow plastic flower in your hair.
On a spring afternoon, Laura eases her motorized wheelchair up to two men who are playing chess in the low-income senior high-rise where she lives a concrete building that has all the charm of the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War but is home to the Friendly Neighbor Senior Center.
One of the chess players, Harvey Wilhelmsen, describes himself as "what you might call a loner." Friendly Neighbor is more of a name than a concept for Harvey, who says, "The fewer I know their name, the better," although he adds that there was one woman he got to know pretty well. "And then she died. She was teaching me to play the piano."
"Since I've lived here," chimes in a man named Robert Hellesen, who is resting on his walker while he watches the chess game, "I've known about 25 people that have gone pfffft."
Laura doesn't play chess, but she likes to visit and to philosophize, so she has a question for Harvey: "At what age did you get the certainty that people weren't going to last long and you weren't either?" When Harvey doesn't answer, Laura says, "In a way it's kind of exhilarating. Do you feel that way? That since you know your time is limited it increases your enjoyment?"
Still, it's always startling to hear that someone upstairs had a heart attack and nobody found his body for three days. That's why Laura and her neighbors on each side, Pauline and Hildegard, came up with a system: hang a doily on your doorknob at 9 every night, then take it back inside at 9 the next morning. If the doily is still on the door after that, investigate.
Laura looks around sometimes and worries that too many of her neighbors never do anything, that they've given up on life. She wants to create what she calls "a climate of possibility." Sometimes she takes TRAX downtown to get free opera and symphony tickets for her neighbors.
Last April she signed up for the countywide "Senior Idol" contest, an older person's version of the popular TV show, and then she practiced her song in the dining hall in front of some of her friends. Later at the contest, she performed "Cry Me a River," didn't win a prize and spent 90 minutes, bundled up against the blustery day, getting herself and her wheelchair home on the bus.
Sometimes she sits in front of one of her mirrors and practices smiling. On Tuesdays she gets her hair done in the beauty parlor in the basement. "I've made myself a committee of one to make myself the most glamorous old person I can be," she says. Old age often makes a person shrink, physically and emotionally. At 78, she explains herself this way: "I feel the need to be larger than life."
When Laura first started buying the mirrors, she didn't really have a plan for them. This was not long after she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and things weren't going so well. By then she had already fled an unhappy marriage in Idaho, had moved to Hollywood so her youngest daughter could study acting, and had worked as an executive housekeeper for several wealthy families in Beverly Hills.
In the mid-1990s she moved to the low-income senior high rise. At that point she was having, at most, one pain-free hour a day, usually about 11 at night, and she had become, as she describes it now, "manipulative and dramatic," doing her best to make her family feel guilty.
And she wasn't too much fun to be around at the senior high rise either, where her neighbors set her on edge. "I would hate them because they were crippled and angry and in many ways helpless, and I had to identify with them. I would say snotty things to them." And then she would see herself in the mirrors in the lobby. "And I'd think 'Who are you? Why are you doing that?"'
So she bought more mirrors for her apartment. In 2001 she was put on a new drug that stopped her deterioration and gave her energy, and the combination of the drug and the mirrors added up to an epiphany: "What you've got to do is make them want to be around you." She was specifically referring to her grandchildren, but her realization extended to everyone.
"I'm working very hard on this, making this the very prime of my life," she says of her old age. "I want this legacy to hit my children and grandchildren right between the eyes. ... I'm making it life's great adventure."
The mirrors started freeing her, she says. "People have a fear of looking in mirrors, of seeing who they really are, of having hope, of finding their own beauty."
And society does its best to render people over 60 invisible. When friends look in her mirrors, this is what she wants them to see: You're still here, make the most of it.
Hang around old people, visit them in the nursing home, watch them do tai chi at the senior center, sit in their living rooms from the east bench to Rose Park, and you come away seeing that there is some luck to aging well, but there is also skill. You begin to see that aging well is less about wellness, more about something else.
There are the complainers, and there are the others the ones who are still trying to learn, who are reaching out to the people around them, who are enjoying a moment. The images stay with you: a woman at Wasatch Valley Healthcare Center, in rehab for a leg problem, who makes sure the other seniors in the dining room have sugar for their coffee; Mary Jane Lyons, who reinvented her life after her husband died she launched a new career as a baker and now brings frivolity to the exercise class she takes at Christus St. Joseph assisted living; Marge Lancaster at Arlington Hills Care Center, whom you come across one achingly gorgeous summer evening as she is sitting alone outside, in her wheelchair. It's such a beautiful evening, she says with a big smile.
They say that as we age we become ourselves but more so, distilled into a bigger version of who we always really were. So maybe we need to start now being who we want to be then.
We should start in our 40s and 50s, certainly by the time we're in our 60s, learning how to age, muses Salt Lake psychotherapist Penny Dalrymple. We should know how to engage with others, be interested and interesting, find what brings us joy, know how to have some measure of gratitude no matter what.
"It's kind of like pregnancy," says Dalrymple. "You want to prepare." But we're all in denial, she says.
A couple months after her appearance in the "Senior Idol" competition, Laura goes to see a performance of the singing group called Young@Heart. The chorus, which originated in Northampton, Mass., was featured earlier this year in a film of the same name.
Laura is crazy about Young@Heart, whose members range from 72 to 88, and during the entire show, sitting in the very last row of the Capitol Theatre, she is on the edge of her wheelchair, transfixed. On that faraway stage, a couple dozen old people are singing songs by James Brown, Cold Play, The Rolling Stones, songs with ironic titles "I Feel Good," "Stayin' Alive," "Should I Stay or Should I Go?"
The seniors on stage are both vibrant and fragile, pumped up and bent over. A singer in the front row blows his nose several times. Like aging itself, the evening has layers of joy and sadness.
The next night, because the choir director and some of the cast are making an appearance, Laura goes back downtown on TRAX to see the movie this time. Afterward she asks how she can audition for the choir, and director Bob Cilman says, "It sounds like you already are."
By the time she wheels back into the senior high rise, it's almost midnight. She turns up the TV loud and makes herself some hot chocolate and an English muffin. She is already thinking of how she can fly to Massachusetts and try out. She is already thinking of some songs she would like Young@Heart to sing.27 comments on this story
In the next few months, her neighbors Pauline and Hildegard will both become too ill to live in the senior high rise. Pauline will move to Massachusetts and then die. Laura will join a chorus in Salt Lake City, at Liberty Senior Center. She will worry that she might sometimes be off pitch and will decide that you can't expect perfection.
One morning, she and neighbors will watch a woman being carried off on a stretcher, a sheet pulled up over her face. She will think to herself: "I'm owning my life like I never have before." Already she will have talked to her daughters about her own death: "We're part of the earth, and we just go on."But tonight she is just plain giddy. Look in the mirror, any of the 25, and see her.