Jan Haag taught journalism, English and creative writing at Sacramento City College for more than three decades before her 2021 retirement. A former magazine editor, she is the author of Companion Spirit, a collection of poems about her husband’s death published by Amherst Writers & Artists Press. She leads in-person writing groups in Sacramento, as well as virtual ones, in which the topic of grief and loss often arises. Read more of her beautiful writing here.
I can’t remember when my late best friend started telling me this, but I do know that she mentioned it fairly often throughout the 17 years that she coped with metastasized colon cancer. “I have a grateful heart,” Georgann would say. And she did, even as she coped with mastodon-sized pain, even as she sometimes lost her temper with her dearest ones—her husband, her kids.
I recall with vivid clarity Georgann lying on my sofa on one of her rare visits back to her hometown, having moved two states away in Washington about a year after her diagnosis and cancer surgery that just leveled her. “If I’m gonna die,” she said, “I don’t want to do it in Elk Grove.” She loved gray, misty weather, the girl who’d grown up in way-too-hot Sacramento when the only air conditioning you could easily find was in some stores and at the movies. So she and her husband Ron and three youngest kids moved to the Olympic peninsula where she had no shortage of her favorite weather.
But on a visit to Sacramento to see her two oldest kids and me, she was in great pain that was hard to quell with her usual selection of heavy drugs (aka “the good shit”). And I can still see her lying on my sofa when Diego, my huge doofus of an orange cat, came to arrange himself on her. I tried to move him, but he wasn’t having it. Georgann not only allowed it but said that Diego felt good as he laid his big self on her, purring loudly.
“This,” she said as she and Diego lay there with their eyes closed. “I’m so grateful for moments like this.”
She lived in Washington for a decade until her death last summer, always in a state of precarity. Georgann, I’ve realized, was a precariat, one who lives in precarious circumstances. (Yes, it’s a real word that’s been in use since the 1950s.) These might be people who deal with illness, who are coping with war or, in a sociological sense, people who have intermittent work, housing or food.
And Georgann the precariat was grateful for it. She was just happy to be here and wanted as much time as she could have on the planet.
Recently I came across the work of Dr. Laura Carstensen of the Stanford Center on Longevity where she’s been studying the psychology of aging. (Susan Cain) She’s found in her research that older people have more gratitude, are more focused on meaning and have deeper friendships than younger people. Some might think that’s because they’re wise older folks. Not so, Carstensen says. It’s that they have an awareness of precarity, that their lives are not predictable for some reason, that they live in a precarious state. Older people know they don’t have that much time left, which shifts their perspective and emotions.
This also happens to younger people whose life circumstances through illness or other factors have made them precariats, as well as people who know they’re dying. And they don’t want to spend time with just anyone.
“Because older people perceive shorter time horizons than younger people, they would prefer emotionally meaningful partners,” Carstensen said in a 2020 interview in Forbes magazine, adding that these differences are driven not by age but by “time horizons.” When you have a shorter time horizon, that provides “powerful influences on people’s goals and motivations,” she said.
“What we have shown empirically is that we can shift the preferences of younger people to look like those of older people when they perceive time horizons as relatively short, and we can generate preferences in older people that resemble younger people when we expand their theoretical time horizons.”
It’s not age; it’s the amount of time you think you have left. It means you want to spend time with people because you enjoy spending time with them, not because they can do something for you in the future. That’s a meaningful partner.
And for my precariat best friend, who gave me so many gifts of the heart, I’m honored to realize that, along with her husband and kids and close family and friends, I was one of the meaningful partners, too. Well, Diego and me, of course—there for our precariat, the one with the hugely grateful heart.