There’s this conundrum in older age, and it bedevils me: Should we speed up, because we don’t have as much time left, or slow down (finally) and enjoy our leisure? [Read more…]
I humiliated myself, but it wasn’t my fault. It was the fault of my elders, who play things so close to the vest.
One day when I was in my mid-fifties, I was having lunch with friends who are twenty years older. We were discussing a very elderly couple in our writing group. The husband was 90, the wife 85. They still wrote and published, and were incredibly vibrant. “They probably still have sex!” I said.
My friends were appalled. “Well, why wouldn’t they?” one asked.
But how was I to know? Who talks about the intimate details of life in the oldest years?
Okay, now I get the sex thing, but here’s what I really want to know: how do very senior peeps deal with mortality? I apologize for sounding stupid; yes, I DO in fact realize that I, at 58, could go any minute. I’ve almost “gone” three times already (1 car accident at 17, and 2 surgeries later in life). But I want to know how to deal, when I get to be eighty-plus. Getting very old must be existentially challenging. One loss after another, one medical scare after another. How do you manage it emotionally?
We just learned that my uncle, who is 85 and has Parkinsons’, has to go live in an elder care facility. To quote the renowned geriatrician Dr. Bill Thomas, my uncle has been given a life sentence for the crime of frailty. Later today I’ll ask Mom how she’s handling it, because if it were my brother I’d be flattened by grief. But Mom’s been through so much, I suspect she’s stronger than me. Is that the answer? That we grow stronger in old age? (October 2014 update: my uncle LOVES the place. It is a beautiful facility which Mom and I visited, and the people there are caring and kind.)
I see all these vibrant eighty-plussers living happy lives. They must have a strategy. I’d like to know what it is.
Recently, my husband, who is 65, said he figured he had about ten more “good” years. A few years ago, I would have bitched at him about that comment, but now I accept the logic of it. Maybe he’ll be wrong but we don’t want to take a chance. So I say, HELL YEAH, LET’S PARTAY. Let’s go on cruises, let’s go on road trips. Let’s golf, make love, go out to lunch and a movie. Let’s drink too much and eat two desserts.
Alice Walker, in her poem “Until I Was Nearly Fifty,” said of this inter-generational wisdom-sharing:
Those who sit
If there really
A path ahead
Yes. We are there
Concerned for you…”
So in that vein, ladies and gentleman of the forward wave, do you have any advice for coping with the upcoming blows to body and heart? Any words of wisdom or strategies to share? I for one would be so grateful, and I doubt I’m alone in my desire to learn.
Just before dawn on a cold October morning in 2008, I boarded a puddle-jumper out of North Dakota after my father’s funeral. Mom, my two siblings and I were returning to California, and it felt like we were abandoning Dad. As I listened to Rainbow by Jia Peng Fang and looked out the window at the dots of light representing isolated farmhouses of South Dakota, then Wyoming, then Colorado, the song burned a powerful memory into my mind. Every now and then I hear it, and it reminds me, and I’m flattened, stunned stupid with grief all over again. So then I wonder,
Why the hell did humans have to get stuck with knowing they’re mortal?
It’s such a burden, and it’s a special gift to humans alone. Animals have no concept (although sometimes I wonder about elephants). Think how comforting it would be to have the limited consciousness of a dog, for example. You eat, sleep, poop, and watch for opportunities. You don’t think about your eight missing litter-mates or parents.
And then this is amazing: we humans adjust. I can go a whole month or two without feeling bad about Dad. What an underrated coping mechanism! We not only get used to the idea that we’ll lose our loved ones, but once we do suffer such a loss, we adapt and move on. The drive to survive wins out over grief, and even allows us to repress the knowledge that some day, we’re going to deliver that same blow to our loved ones.
Recently I noticed Bill was moping around. He was missing his parents, he said, but when I tried to comfort him, he declined. “The pain reminds me of the love I felt for them. They were good parents.” Bill, who doesn’t believe in a God or afterlife, believes he will live on through the people he’s influenced positively.
I get fearful sometimes in the wee hours, when the arithmetic seems more stark and life more of a crap shoot. Like you, I’ve survived tragedy; I’ve dealt with situations that made me feel almost mentally ill at the realization of a horrendous truth, or some kind of great loss. Sometimes it seems we humans know too much. One way to alleviate that burden is a form of denial: you stay busy and productive, enjoy the sun on your face and the fragrance of new-mown grass, and try to ignore it.
I finally told Bill about my existentialist woes. I didn’t want to bum him out, because he’s always such a Pollyanna and I didn’t know if he could handle my dark side. He shrugged and said, “Life is wonderful, but it IS a ticking bomb.” Cracked me up. I felt relieved. We know we will die. The choice is what we do with that knowledge.
I’ve pretty much decided to ignore the fact in favor of energetic productivity, and let the chips fall where they may. What about you? What’s your strategy for dealing with this?
Okay, admit it. If you’re reading this blog, you’re at that age where you’re thinking about it.
If you are at all concerned – and who isn’t? – I recommend reading a fun book called Sum; Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman.
Eagleman is a sharp young neuroscientist who looks at life with humor and creativity. The forty short stories (2-5 pages each) in Sum are more like parables which can be read on more than one level. The main theme is that life on Earth is simpler and more fun than we humans have made it out to be, and in that sense Sum is a teasing reminder to lighten up and appreciate the now.
I laughed out loud at some of the stories, like Egalitaire, in which God in Her great generosity invites all who die to come to Heaven equally, but the outcome surprises her:
“The Communists are baffled and irritated, because they have finally achieved their perfect society, but only by the help of a God in whom they don’t want to believe. The meritocrats are abashed that they’re stuck for eternity in an incentiveless system with a bunch of pinkos. The conservatives have no penniless to disparage; the liberals have no downtrodden to promote.
“So God sits on the edge of Her bed and weeps at night, because the only thing everyone can agree upon is that they’re all in Hell.”
I highly recommend this book! And if you want to feel uplifted right now, watch what he has to say about his new movement, Possibilianism, at PopTech in Camden, Maine.
Kindle readers can contact me at LMSpreen@yahoo.com.
Why is our response to aging and the old so intensely negative?
According to Lynn Casteel Harper, a chaplain to a retirement community, here is the answer:
“Older people expose what is true for people of all ages. We are vulnerable and finite…Elders point to our shared fate as living creatures — to slow up, to wind down, to die. It comes as little surprise that a society so phobic about the subject of death (people “pass,” no one seems to “die”) so readily dismiss those people we see as closest to death — old people. However, we know that not just older people die. We are all vulnerable, at any moment…Coming to terms with finitude is the ongoing struggle of the human spirit; it is soul work. To attempt to live meaningfully with the awareness of our mortality is work marked by courage…” (You can read her entire essay here.)
Dr. Kathryn Zerbe, eating disorders specialist, says much the same thing. “In our mothers’ generation, there was acceptance that your body wasn’t going to look the same at 50 as it did at 25. Today there’s not.” She goes on to say that extreme efforts to maintain youth “…is a way of trying to skirt the issue of aging and mortality.”
According to Rev. Harper and Dr. Zerbe, then, much of what we do to “look young” is based on fear of dying. So here’s my question: what if we weren’t afraid of dying? How much more richly would we live?
When I’m healthy, I think about things like being mindful, living in the present, and having balance in my life. Every day, I work hard to build my writing career. I write, I study, and I work on my platform to sell my book. I try to help other people. I spend time with my family and friends. I do the usual life-maintenance things: cooking, cleaning, exercise, bill-paying. I try to get enough sleep and I worry about all of it.
And then something happens to drop you right down to the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I’m facing surgery for ovarian cancer. Hang on, I don’t know if I have it! Maybe not. Maybe it’s a cyst. Maybe it’s scar tissue from previous surgeries. OC killed two of my aunts, though, so I’m taking this seriously.
While I’m preparing for surgery, it’s hard to focus on the things that typically make up my days. Most of it seems unimportant now, but when I’m back to normal, I’ll return to my usual routine. And there’s the question: should I?
My constant obsessing about happiness, balance, the afterlife, work/love/energy/health – that’s all important if you have the luxury of time and energy. If you are preparing for major surgery and possibly a rough period after that, though, everything changes. I’m trying to clean things up for my husband and son, you know, just in case? And what a nightmare.
Consider all of my files. What if they have to figure out what the hell to do with them? How will they know if it’s straight to the trash or something more important? I have about 75 user name/password combinations to access certain services. What will they do with those? Some of them are linked to automatic charges on a credit card. How will these two good men, assumedly who wouldn’t be dealing with this mountain of work unless they were also simultaneously grieving, deal? Doesn’t it make you sick to even glimpse the possibilities? So I am trying to reduce, focus, organize and/or prioritize the things that make up my life.
As I go through all of it, as I make phone calls and explain to people that for the next few months I won’t be at their meetings or clubs or writing for their newsletters or editing whatever, I come to this inescapable conclusion: much of the flurry of my life is a waste of time and energy.
“The prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates one’s mind wonderfully.” – Mark Twain
Here is what’s important to me: my health. My husband, family and friends. My writing, and being a part of the online community. Golf. Um, what else? Uh. Let’s see. Hmmmm.
You know what? I can’t think of anything else that deserves to take up my days.
One day, I realized I was not a tractor.
At the time I lived on 8/10 of an acre in the high desert region of southern California. Most of my yard was dirt, but it was nice dirt; a hilltop property with a view of distant mountains that turned rose-pink in the sunset. A vineyard, with 60 grapevines. Pine trees running along the fenceline.
But it did need a lot of work, and I already had a fulltime job, plus a one-hour commute. How to keep the yard looking nice? I decided, because I believe that lots of little moves add up to big things, that I would do 20 minutes of yardwork every evening. It would add up to a neat-looking yard.
(If you’re asking what my lazy-ass soon-to-be-ex-husband was doing at this point, I would say, watching TV, but that’s another subject.)
So I started the new program. Got the hula hoe out and scraped those baby tumbleweeds right into the trash. Raked leaves, trimmed bushes. The yard looked good, but within days, my joints started to hurt in that special way that tells you “Keep this up, Wonder Woman, and you’ll have lifelong problems.” It was then I realized that while the yard was big, the amount of cartilage in my joints was small. Put one up against the other, and guess who wins? Not the elbows, nor for that matter, the hips, knees or lower back.
I found money in my very tight budget for a gardener, a mow-and-blow guy. Then I got a divorce. Then I sold the house and moved into this 55+ community with a teeny little yard (it has a view, so it feels bigger.) And I am so happy! I even have a cherry tomato plant growing in a pot.
You can only do so much, and it doesn’t make me feel bad any more to say that. I think this is one of the cool things you get with maturity, a blessing to offset the unfortunate reality: we’re older. We’re not immortal. But we’re not tractors, either.