Althea: On Harvey’s 150th birthday, we hosted a sesquicentennial carnival. The boys built a tent for him to show off his Civil War dag and such ephemera. He posed for souvenir photographs with the public. That was the main draw, in my opinion–the photographs. Maybe two thousand people attended, along with the international media and several congressmen. I know people claim we neglected him, but we’d waited until he secured the sesquicentennial. That put him past Calment and out of reach of the Uzbekistanis. Harvey promised us that he’d die that night. When he didn’t, it frustrated the family more than you know.
Morty Fly: Longevity is the only talent our family has, if you could even call it a talent. We’re different. Not blessed, mind you. Some people call it a curse because the arc of our lives doesn’t describe a bell like a normal man’s. The downward sweep carries out like someone forgot about us–a life without proper punctuation. Because of this, it’s difficult to speculate what extreme age causes versus what neglect causes. It could be divergent outcomes, or it could be so similar that a medical examiner couldn’t distinguish between them.
Contents of the box under Harvey Fly’s bed: memento mori ring, World’s Fair postcards, shells from Ensenada, a jar of earth from Ecuador. A smudgy valentine a tornado blew into his yard that he claimed sometimes was from his soul mate, sometimes from God, in either case addressed to Bob. Letters tied into bricks. A pair of dentures wrapped in cloth to be put in at death.
Althea: Aunt Lavina was 130 at Harvey’s sesquicentennial. She had no serious medical conditions when she died of old age. She was 151. If Harvey had died the night of the carnival, she would have eventually become the world’s oldest person, but it seemed that Harvey didn’t concern himself with the ambitions of his children.
Morty: Harvey’s diet was bad because he refused to eat. He called prunes humiliated plums, crackers humiliated bread, raisins humiliated grapes, applesauce–well, you understand. In the last year of his life, I only saw him eat oatmeal and drink water. His smoking, however, continued unabated.
Coroner: Paramedics found the body lying face down on a bed in a locked room. Garbage bags blocked the windows. The mattress was stained with urine. The commode in the corner had been used in the past day or so. The patient was dressed in one-piece underwear. He was aged one hundred and seventy-three years, three months, and twelve days. His stomach had atrophied.
Althea: I brought food into him three times a day. That doesn’t mean he ate it. We filled his water bottle as needed, but we never kept track of the numbers. Beside his bed, he had a bell, but he only rang when he wanted to change his television station. He had an old set without a remote. He didn’t know how to use them which is why we put that particular one in there. Yes, the windows were covered because he complained of astigmatism.
I don’t think people understand the strain of caring for someone that might live forever. It sounds ridiculous now, but before he died, we didn’t know how long he might live. In the moment, there’s no perspective.
Gertie: He kept outliving his wives, though supposedly, he never divorced the second one before marrying the third. He disappeared for a while when the last one died. He went to California.
Morty: I deliver groceries to my aunts weekly. Althea turns 120 next month; Gertie’s 113 and stone deaf. Neither one gets out much. About six months before Harvey died, they asked me to start buying those supplement drinks for cancer patients. I assumed they were for the old man, but I didn’t think he’d take them. Before my brother died, he’d personally fed Harvey peanut butter at Althea’s request.
Gertie: For years, he was the oldest living American. You’d be surprised at the efforts people around him took to keep those birthdays coming. You’d think it’d kill him to take a vitamin, the fuss he put up. Believe me, the carnival was an exhalation. Finally, finally, finally, Harvey could die. And like all great moments, there were plenty of witnesses. But that didn’t satisfy him. About a month later, the panic set in.
George: I didn’t care for the smell of his breath, like stale blood or greasy bones. His skin hung looser than swags of crepe. One of his arms tucked against his chest like a bird’s. He was so small a cat could’ve swallowed him. But they told me he’d survived tuberculosis and half a dozen flu epidemics.
Iona: I gave him baths, not because I wanted to but because no one else would. The night of the sesquicentennial was the absolute worst. He came in covered with cotton candy grit. I couldn’t get it off him or my hands. I rubbed his skin red, soaped all the folds good to save the undertaker the time. Harvey was supposed to die that night. He always told us that. I said, “It’s done. I’m not doing it again.” And I didn’t.
Morty: There he was, the next morning, just sucking prune grit from his fingers and teasing the hell out of the late reporters. He called them spelunkers. When they asked how he lasted so long, he said, “Procrastination.”
Some had painted his nine remaining toenails bubblegum pink. He liked to play dead to scare the little ones. Vital as he was, he’d broken a deal: Meet your goal, then get the hell out of the way. The older ones slouched around all day with grim faces. They knew. Over the next couple decades, they floated away like sad balloons.
Morty: He fell in love in California. When he spoke of his trip out west, his eyes lit with century-old sunlight. I wrote some of his memories down, thought I’d throw together a book, make some money. Well, to honor him, really. The man had weathered zeitgeist from fin de siÃ¨cle to FahrvergnÃ¼gen. Americans had progressed from telegraphs to the internet. Then I realized: nobody else was listening. On his 167th birthday, only one reporter came, asked Althea to distill Harvey’s life into pithy advice, ate a piece of cake without sitting down, and left. Harvey died three months and twelve days past his one hundred and seventy-third birthday.
A Lincoln impersonator eulogized him as the last Civil War veteran. Bagpipers livened up the telecast of the funeral. Two presidents spoke. His tombstone listed his name and the years of his birth and death, leaving the burden on the dash to tell the rest.