Independent Days

After a century of self-sufficiency, Martha Wyers adjusts to life in a nursing home.

By Neal Pollack

Martha Wyers has only recently begun to get used to the idea that she’s in a nursing home. She has lived 102 years, the last 60 completely by herself, and she’s not accustomed to being under the care of others. When circumstances forced her to enter the home in February, she was too sedated to realize what was going on. Once her senses returned, however, confusion quickly turned to dissatisfaction.

“Oh God!” says Wyers from her hospital bed. “Can you believe it? I’m not independent anymore. I’ve gotta just simply be at their mercy. There comes to be a situation where you have to give up regardless. So how can you give up? You just have to give up! That’s all. That’s it.”

I first wrote about Wyers in the Reader in 1994 at the suggestion of her friend, Scott Cleator. He met Mar, as her buddies call her, in 1984, while suntanning on the roof of their apartment building on Wellington. She was doing calisthenics that involved slow jogging, toe touching, and leg stretches. Cleator and his friends were shocked to discover that she was nearly 90, more than six decades older than they were.

Cleator joked with her that she should be an actress. She told him that she’d always been in “the public” ever since her husband George had died in the 1930s, first as a saleswoman at Saks Fifth Avenue, and later, in the 1960s, in a TV commercial for the John M. Smyth furniture company. Cleator took some photos of Wyers and sent them out to a few agents.

The talent agent Shirley Hamilton invited Wyers to a New Year’s Eve party to meet other actors and models. Soon after, Hamilton got her an audition for a Bed Mart commercial, which she nailed. For the next year and a half, her face was on billboards all over Chicago. She was in several commercials and at 95 she became a minor celebrity.

When I interviewed Wyers, she was 99 and still auditioning occasionally. She introduced me to her pet birds, took me through a series of stretches, and explained to me her life philosophy. The reason other older women got sick and became morose, broke their hips and became dependent, she said, was because they didn’t stay “in the public.” They didn’t have anything else. “What woman at 99 is able to do what I do? Just guess. I go and have my blood pressure taken, I go to the health center on Diversey and Clark. They’ve got my picture hanging on the wall, they’ve got my business card, and they say, ‘Who is that? That’s Mar Wyers. She’s 99 years old! And they can’t believe it. All these people are coming in and they’re sick and with canes and with crutches and with walkers and with things like that, and the doctor looks at me and I look at the doctor, and I say, ‘Uh-uh, I’m not going to be like that!’ No, no, I’m going to keep going, I’m going to keep on my feet and keep going. Who has time for anything else? The retirement place over there, they’re trying to get me in there. What am I going to do in there? I’m going to sit down with all these old ladies and play cards all afternoon? Uh-uh. Not me! As long as I’m doing what I’m able to do, and keep on going, and keep my brain fresh and smart and alert, what else do you want? It’s your life, you’ve got to preserve it. That’s your life and then you keep on going and keep on going. As long as you’re able.”

The first week of October 1997, just after her 102nd birthday, Wyers made a doctor’s appointment. She’d been losing weight and having trouble swallowing. Her friend Ramon Fermin, an anesthesiologist, was with her when the doctor told her she had an esophageal tumor that had already spread to her liver and lungs. The cancer was incurable.

For the next two months, Wyers went about her daily routine as normally as she could, with the help of visiting nurses. One night in early January, she collapsed while trying to pull out her sofa bed. She crawled around her apartment, confused, trying to find a telephone. Everything she grabbed, including a silverware drawer, fell on her and disoriented her even further. When a health-care worker called on her the next day at noon, she found the apartment in ruins, with Wyers lying on the floor in a bloody heap, barely breathing. The worker later told Cleator it looked as if the apartment had been robbed and Mar had been attacked.

Wyers required multiple skin grafts because of her injuries. Cleator was in the hospital with her when she suffered congestive heart failure. It seemed certain then that she was going to die, but she kept on going.

Wyers’s first few weeks in the nursing home, just half a block away from her apartment on Wellington, were not fun. “She was kicking and fighting,” Cleator says, but he tried to make her comfortable. He filled her private room with pictures, press clips, and other memorabilia to make her feel more at home. He tried to bring in her pet birds, but she said she didn’t want them because she couldn’t take care of them. She didn’t like having other people waiting on her, and she desperately wanted to walk. The only time she got out of bed was when Cleator wheeled her down to the first floor, which, for her, wasn’t often enough.

Meanwhile, the other patients at the home had begun to hear about the 102-year-old woman up on the third floor with the shocking red hair and raspy voice. George, a double amputee with late-stage dementia, wheeled into her room and began singing to her. “He would come in at nighttime,” Wyers says. “And would say, ‘Hi, hi.’ I said, ‘Get outta here, get outta here! Come on, get outta here!’ I was scared to death of him. My God, a man wheeling himself around my bed in a wheelchair? Round and round and round and round.”

But George grew on her. “He comes in and he sits there and talks a little bit, or maybe he’ll sing a little bit for me. In the meantime, I’ll let him do it. There’s no harm to the man. I just let him go ahead and do what he wants to do. After all, this is his life and this is what he wants to do. This is what he has to live with.” Now George and Martha get along fine, to the extent that she refers to him as her “boyfriend.” She believes, only half kidding, that her husband George, with whom she didn’t have the soundest of relationships, has sent this more bizarre George as a kind of revenge from beyond. It’s probably for the best, Cleator says, that Wyers can’t hear very well these days. When George is in one of his foul tempers, he wheels into her room and shouts “Fuck you!” Wyers just laughs.

“Oh, hi George,” she says.

In general, Wyers’s spirits are good. She spends much of her time asleep, but is always glad to have company. “After all, they’re spending their time coming to see me,” she says. “They’re using their time up for me, so I have to be recipient. And I have to agree with them. I have to cater to the public.” Cleator, who works as an X-ray technician, visits every day when he gets off work, usually around six. On the weekends, he’s there by one in the afternoon. He wheels her around, opens her mail, washes and combs her hair. When he has to work double shifts at the hospital, Wyers is usually attended by Ramon Fermin or by Javier Dominguez, a young immigrant who recently left his family behind in Mexico and has adopted Mar as his surrogate abuela. Wyers is constantly amazed by Cleator’s attentions, and constantly lets him know what he means to her.

Cleator is nonchalant about his caretaking. Wyers started out as his friend, he says, but she became family, and you always take care of family. “The woman never cowers in fear,” he says. “She’s showed us all how to live. That’s what it’s about. She’s showed us how to live, have a good time, never look back in regret. Just look forward and move on. Like she’s still doing. She hasn’t given up.”

A couple of weeks ago, after a bout of near-fatal anemia, Wyers woke up one day to find Cleator in her room, and started singing a version of “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.” Since then, she’s been singing the song often. She says it came to her in a vision:

She’s coming round the mountain

She’s coming round the mountain

She’s coming round the great big mountain

Just like you

She’s coming round the mountain

Coming round the mountain

Coming round with two white horses like you…

“I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of anything. So if I have to go to sleep, then I’m gonna go to sleep. If I have to keep awake, then I’m gonna keep awake with all the friends that I’ve got and be sociable with them until the end. Then I’m gonna say good-bye. I’m the woman in that song. I’m coming round the mountain. Big, big, big mountain. Coming. Can you believe this? It all ends with a mountain and a song.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Martha Wyes and George photo by Lloyd DeGrane.