Tag Archives: Aging

Why am I here?

In her latter years, my mother used to ask that a lot.  I never knew what  to say, so I usually said something trite like “We still need you here.”  At which she would click her tongue against her teeth the way she did when I disagreed with her politics.

What was she asking, I wondered.  Did she still dream of unrealized ambitions in her nineties?   I always found the question unsettling and frankly, a little annoying.

But now that there are many more birthdays behind than before me, I think I get it.  I think she was reflecting over her long life and trying to make sense of it.  And I find myself doing the same.    What has my life meant?  At the finish line, will I be able to say I have   “fought the good fight” ?    Did I miss my “calling,” my high purpose?  The olympic swimmer,  the nuns of Calcutta, the Nobel Laureate, the musical prodigy;  they had a calling, didn’t they?  A custom made life-suit,  into which they fit perfectly.   Their one true path.  Is there one for me?

In my early life, I was sure of it.    My life would be exciting, full of high purpose, awe-inspiring.   Unlike my mother’s.  Especially, not like my mother’s.

Mind you, my mother  was not a slacker. She was a strong and intelligent woman; a school teacher, an avid reader, a seamstress and amazing gardener.   She make great chicken and dumplings and rhubarb pie. She survived two husbands and lived independently for 92+ of her 93 years.

But.  She never wrote a book, climbed a mountain, ran a corporation (or a marathon)  or held public office.  For most of her life she lived in the same community.  To my impatient, arrogant 18-year-old eyes, her life looked mundane,  aimless, pointless even.  Not mine, I vowed.  I would  set goals for myself and go about achieving them.  Simple as that.

But it didn’t quite work out that way.  My path took unexpected twists and  turns.   It  didn’t  lead steadily  to a noble destination, but instead  wound  through brambles, tangled ravines and rocky boulders.  I ran, I  stumbled,  I climbed, I  tripped,  I fell and I recovered,  with varying degrees of grace.

Admittedly, on its surface,  my life looks radically different from that of my mother.  I left home at an early age, attended  universities in distant states,  managed a demanding career,  travelled the world; accumulated a modicum of recognition for my work.  But at its core,  like my mother’s, my life was made of the usual stuff;  education, career, marriage, children, retirement.   And my path, like hers, was not the work of destiny, but the result of choices.

And  my path has  led me…. here. Not to a mountaintop and not to a swamp.  As it did my mother.

It’s tempting to  fall for the “one true thing”  pitch.  The idea that  we are  entitled to  the one true love, the one perfect career, the one true happily-ever-after is very appealing.   And perhaps it is true for some.   But my life didn’t  come with a blueprint; I made choices, sometimes wisely, sometimes foolishly, that in the aggregate defined my path.  I wasn’t always sure of my choices,  and  they didn’t always lead to the mountaintop.

If I could answer my mother  now, I would reassure her that she didn’t miss her calling.  Like me, she simply made choices that led her to her destination.   And  at the end of the day, it was not our accomplishments, as my teenage self thought,  but the accumulation of our everyday thoughts and actions that defined us. Both of us.

 

 

WHAT THE LITTLE DOG KNEW

Looking towards the lightIn a wheelchair beside the nurses’ station, a tiny old woman sits, eyes closed, lips parted, hands folded in her lap. Her head droops to one side. Ragged wisps of white hair stray across her forehead. Her nightgown is rumpled, one slipper has dropped to the floor exposing a pale bare foot.  She could be asleep, perhaps even comatose.  Visitors pass, a nurse rushes by and jostles her wheelchair but offers no apology.  No one notices.  It’s  as if she’s invisible.

As nursing homes go, it’s a good one.  It’s so  clean it’s almost unsettling,, the furnishings  expensive and inoffensive,  the staff’s crisp white uniforms fairly rustle as they pass.    Vivaldi plays  softly in the background. They try hard.  But it is still a nursing home.  Where no one wants to be.

A  small dog being led by a visitor trots by, then  suddenly pulls at his IMG_1147lead, resisting  his owner’s attempts to move forward.  The visitor tugs at the lead, averting her eyes from the woman in the wheelchair.   But the little dog is determined.  He sits  down by the woman’s wheelchair as if he has reached his destination.    After a few seconds, the woman opens her eyes and raises her head.  A smile spreads slowly across her weathered face at the sight of the little dog.  Her watery eyes twinkle. A soft voice breaks the silence.  It has a characteristic honeyed lilt, a pattern of speech once cultivated in finishing schools for proper southern ladies.

“Well, hello there!  And aren’t you a pretty little thing?” A bony finger reaches down and strokes the little dog’s ear. He stands, reciprocates with a swift lick of her finger, then sits again,  tongue hanging  sidewise, looking up at her expectantly. They regard each other silently.  She reaches down and gently strokes his back.

She turns to the visitor, “Do you take good care of him?”

“Yes, I do, ” the visitor says.

“Well, make sure you do, now, ” she admonishes. “He needs a lot of care.”

“Don’t worry,” the visitor assures her, “I take good care of him, I promise.” A few minutes pass as the woman talks softly to the little dog.

Finally, she looks up at the visitor, as if to dismiss her. Thank you.” she says, smiling, returning her hands to her lap.  “Can he come back sometime?”

“You’re welcome, “ says the visitor. “And of course! I’ll bring him to see you again.”

The woman smiles as the visitor and the little dog walk away down the hall.

We tend to avoid  people who seem needy,  especially the elderly.  Perhaps we are afraid we can’t help, that we  will become  entangled in their problems, that it will take too much of our time.  But as the little dog knew, people are not always what they seem.  And our gifts do not have to be big ones.  The little dog gave the only thing he had to give, his attention and his love, and it was enough.   In the words of  Mother Teresa, “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”

 

 

Facing death: Life on Life’s Terms

 

 

autumn-832334__180Another friend died this week. We all die. But we don’t want to face it until we have to. We don’t like to think about the “D” word.

 

What does it mean to “face death, anyway?” I made a will in my 40s, I have a burial plot, a living trust, a living will, long-term care insurance, sufficient funds to take care of myself. I have downsized to a small single story, low maintenance house near friends, family and excellent health care. I’ve talked to the kids about my end-of-life wishes I’ve even made a half-hearted stab at planning my funeral. That should do it, right?

Not exactly.

In Psychological Reflections, C.S. Jung says, “ The second half of life does not signify ascent, unfolding, increase, exuberance, but death since the end is now its goal. The negation of life’s fulfillment is synonymous with the refusal to accept its ending. Both mean not wanting to live, and not wanting to live is identical with not wanting to die. Both make one curve. “ (1)

Hard to hear. Especially in a society where youth is venerated and age discounted. Where we are inundated with products and services to “reverse the aging process,” both physically and mentally. Where “ascent and increase” are assumed to be lifelong.
And yet we die. We all die.
The great world religions offer hope and guidance for the passage. But increasingly in our materialistic culture, we have opted for our own belief systems that lead to a dead end. Literally. The payoff is that I get to live my life pretty much as I want without worrying too much about the consequences. And if that is what I believe, don’t I need to believe in constant increase,  unfolding, and ascent? Should’t I grab out of life all I can before it’s too late? Shouldn’t I make sure I’m first in line? Shouldn’t I camouflage any sign of aging ?
Except that we don’t continually ascend.  We don’t get stronger, more sexy, more “productive.“ We age. In spite of the best exercise programs, health spas, regenerating creams and mental gymnastics; we age, slowly and irreversibly. “Active retirement homes,” the current euphemism for nursing homes, are filled  with forgotten  parents, uncles, aunts, even children, while their relatives are busy acquiring and increasing, unknowingly and inevitably charting their own paths to the same fate.
I think this compulsion to hang on to our younger selves is what Jung meant when he said “not wanting to live is identical with not wanting to die. ” Because we “don’t want to die” we try to live as we have in the past, even though we know this behavior is futile, mostly unattractive, sometimes dangerous. We know there is a better way. As the number of people over 65 continues to rise dramatically, so does the attention to aging by the media, press, and social media. There is no shortage of information on aging.  And the messages almost universally follow the theme that life can be rewarding after 65. But not without work. And not without confronting the reality. Not without admitting to our inner selves that we are indeed on the downside of the curve. And speaking for myself, not without a strong faith.
There is a difference between maintaining health and self-delusion. I might want to consider a seniors class at the “Y” instead of skydiving or rock climbing. I need more rest these days, but that’s no excuse for avoiding exercise. Keeping my mind active is not just a hedge against mental deterioration; it makes me a more interesting, vibrant person. Becoming discouraged does not justify defeatism or anger. Asking for help does not make me a failure.
I don’t know how to do this. And I know it’s not easy. But every day is a day when I learn something new about the process. A day when one friend dies, and another celebrates 10 years cancer-free. When one friend is diagnosed with Alzheimers and another completes a degree program, long deferred. When one friend loses her sight and another discovers her dormant artistic talent. Each of us has a different path. Today I am blessed with good health, but I have no idea what lies ahead. Death is inevitable, but I have choices that will maximize my ability to engage and contribute as long as I squarely face life on life’s terms. And if I can accept that simple but challenging fact, I can choose to live every day to the fullest with hope for the future.

1. Rohr, Richard (2010-12-27). Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent (Kindle Location 1268). St. Anthony Messenger Press. Kindle Edition.

When life doesn’t get better

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–For some reason, I thought life always got better.

Alice Hoffman  in “Survival Lessons”

 

 

I did, too, Alice.    Until it didn’t.

This kind of thinking is irrational; I do know that.  The headlines scream pain and misery at me  daily.  Friends succumb to  terrifying disease, floods threaten, jobs are lost. But somehow..it’s not about me.  Not this time.  Until it is.

My thoughts crash in on me.  Is this the “new normal?” Will things  ever get better?  Or will they get worse?  Much worse?  The truth is,  no one knows.

But this I do know.  Increasingly my quality of life does not depend on what seemed so important  when I was in the midst of family and career responsibilities;  my street address, my bank account, who and what I knew,   my outward appearance.   Now what matters is my inner wealth: my friends, family,  my faith.  I am blessed that  I have learned to value solitude,  that  I have friends I can tell the truth, who will give me a hug and not judge or try to fix me.   I have learned to value simple things;   long walks in nature, afternoon naps  with a  small warm-tummy dog,  spring blossoms, the aroma of bread baking.

I have choices.  My pain, my trial, whatever it is – is not ALL of my life and never will be.  No matter where life lands me I can always choose where  to go in my mind.

And who knows.  It  could get better!

Hoffman, Alice (2013). Survival Lessons, Algonquin Books, Kindle Edition.

 

Someday

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“That ship sailed.” I say that a lot these days. So many things now,  that I won’t or can’t do again.   I will not,  for example,  be partying all night,  taking the “red-eye” cross country, wearing sequined jeans,  getting a tattoo, signing up to run a 10K or any other kind of “K”,  or tottering around in shoes with spiky 4″ heels.   And I’m OK with all of that.

If we’re lucky, we all grow old.   And I’m OK with that too.    But I never noticed it happening to me as I navigated life’s passages;  graduation, career,   marriage,  parenting,  the AARP card, grandchildren, downsizing and finally  retirement.

But I didn’t feel old!   OK, maybe I was starting to get arthritis,  maybe it did take longer to “bounce back” from winter colds,  perhaps I did need those “readers” more now.   So I did give up running for walking,  and power aerobics for yoga.   And could it be true that our children were  receiving their  AARP cards?  Unsettling,  but…  I still had  time, plenty of time –  to take that trip,  to be  with family and friends, brush up my piano technique and  attend concerts,  to visit that lonely person,  to read books,  to write books.  Those were my dreams.  And I’d get around to them.  Someday.

I don’t know the exact moment when I knew  life  actually had changed.  Was it a day when someone opened a door I didn’t need opened – or ran to pick up the sunglasses I dropped,  was it my sharp intake of breath at my reflection under the harsh lights of the beauty shop,  or (please, God, no), when someone called me  “cute?”  No matter.   It’s true.   Things have changed,  they have really changed.    And while I haven’t experienced substantial losses, yet, praise God,  a thousand “little sailings” unnoticeable at the time,  have  manifested in sea changes in my life over the years.   Life was never, after all,  endless journeys to far horizons,  but a voyage through tributaries, narrowing  to one.  I am at that tributary.

And that was not OK with me.  Not at all.

I have always worked toward goals that catapulted me toward  new ones.  That made sense in my 40s,  but it was foolish  now.  My fear of aging would not let me see that I was no longer sailing toward a destination,  but had arrived.  So  I continued to postpone my dreams

as I always had  – to Someday.  When I was older. Not now.  Not yet.

But as I watched friends battling terrifying chronic diseases,  becoming incapacitated,  losing spouses with fat bank accounts still intact, I had to admit that in fact, Someday was here.   Time to  face my fear of growing old.  I didn’t enjoy that at first.   But this foolish denial was costing me my dreams.   Time to get busy.  Things to do.  Time to welcome Someday.

So I’ll be scheduling that  trip, spending time with the grandkids, going to those concerts, writing, reading,  hanging out with my friends and family.    It’s Someday.  And my ship has drifted safely in to port.