“For 20 years, we packed lunches, helped with homework, and paid too many bills…” [Read more…]
July is a poignant month for my family. My dad died in July, 2008. He and mom had just celebrated their 59th anniversary, on July 17. Three years after he died, Mom broke her leg and, in July, had to move from their beloved home in the high desert of Hesperia, California. That was in 2011. She just celebrated her 89th birthday last month. In spite of leg pain and other challenges, she’s doing great (I know many of you will remember my posts about her resisting the move.)
Just before she moved, three years ago, I wrote a post that reflects our aging experience: us, and caring for our elders, and the drive to be independent. I’m reposting it here in honor of my family. I hope you enjoy it.
I spent several hours at Mom’s house today. I alternate weekends with my SoCal sister. We get Mom’s mail, water her plants, check her phone messages, and just generally make sure all is well while she’s in the rehab hospital.
Yes, it’s inconvenient (it’s a 90-minute drive), but it’s short-term because she has agreed to sell her house, and this time I believe she will follow through. I’m glad, but also heartbroken. To think of them – them! but it isn’t “them” anymore, is it? It’s just her – not living up there ever again. Well, I’ve held off the tears all day but I guess I can’t forever. Time moves on, and we all get old and die.
I feel conflicted. I want her to move down by me (“up” and “down” relate to land elevation) for all the logical reasons, and then all of a sudden, like right now, I don’t want her to move at all. I want her to risk it, to inconvenience and vex and terrify us with her dogged determination to stay as long as she can in the house that she and Dad built. For me to yank her away from that – and then add in the heartbreaking, elegiac, mind-numbing beauty of the high desert – I can hardly bear the thought.
It’s an end. I’d like to think it’s a beginning, too, but who can say? Mom is healthy and vibrant for almost-86, there’s no reason she can’t have a great ten more years. But will she have the courage to start over, to walk away from that place?
It hurts to think of losing it, because for ten years, Hesperia was my home, too. It was a difficult time, when I worked harder than any human should have to, and delayed my dreams, and saved everybody.
The memories are good and bad.
As a young single mother, I took my son Danny (now 33) on his paper route some weekend mornings when the snow made it impossible for him to ride his bike. One morning I ran over his foot, but the deep sand saved him and after we got over the shock, we laughed. And then newspapers stopped hiring kids and kids stopped getting up early and riding bikes and getting their first paychecks.
On the negative end, my previous marriage ended there. And Dad died up there! I wouldn’t live there now. Couldn’t. But I miss it.
But I digress. Today I worked my butt off, getting Mom’s house all spiffed-up for Amber to look at next Saturday. Amber might buy it. That would be nice, to know it’s still in the family. Amber is a dear friend of my step-daughter. So we would know the house that Dad and Mom built in the ’80s would be well cared for.
It was so beautiful up there today! I swear, when you live in such a place as the high desert, and especially on a spring day like today, you feel a sense of hope and optimism about rearing kids, growing your own food, having quiet and privacy and clean air and astounding skyscapes. You can pretend that you’re living life on your own terms. I imagine this is what people seek when they move to Idaho or Montana or the Dakotas.
Mom’s coming home to my house tomorrow. I started out being excited, and I still am, but we’ve had a couple of conversations since the hospital said they’d cut her loose, and I realize I’m a bloomin’ amateur. I see that Mom’s looking for ways (already) to cut corners and speed things up; and now I understand it’s not about reveling in the relative luxury of my house as compared to a rehab hospital. It’s about my house as stepping stone to – you guessed it – her house. I think she’s just biding her time until she can go home, and once she’s there, who knows? And my other sister, the one who hasn’t yet adapted to her new home near Canada, would do almost anything, including promising to take care of Mom, to be able to come south and thaw out for a couple of months.
So I rearrange furniture at my house to make Mom comfortable, to encourage her to stay, but like an inadequately compelling acquaintance, I know I don’t have much pull. Because I suspect she’s going home for good, even if she doesn’t yet say it. And the tears and frustration and anger of her children and grandchildren are nothing compared to the incense of creosote and sage calling to her from the high desert.
Turn up the volume and you’ll hear the wind chimes in her back yard.
After watching yet another romantic comedy about twenty-somethings falling in love, starting families and landing dream jobs, I have to wonder: what about older people? Do they have dreams? Judging from Hollywood, the answer is no.
So I asked my Facebook friends: What do people who are middle-aged and older dream of accomplishing? and I got back the greatest answer from my buddy Iris Anderson of Palm Desert, who has carved out a wonderful life for herself:
My three daughters are just past menopause and asking the same questions. They gave me a lot of drama when I was in midlife. How about them visiting the Playboy mansion dozens of times, sitting with Hugh Hefner on the stairs, watching the parade go by; or one serving as a nurse in Africa during a revolution; or in Colombia where the coffee plantation was taken by rebels and family members kidnapped? I did not think I would survive my daughters’ adventures, but I began to find the things that I love to do, and the rest took care of itself.
Now I can do all the things I wanted to, like art and science classes, learn a new language, travel, change careers, or go back to college for new training. Never too late. Women in 50s can get their LVN license, learn computers, learn finance, or just plain restart. I especially liked travel – my first opportunity in life. I have visited 81 countries on the cheap. Universities have special help for older women.
As for men, I stayed with mine, but I see women in their 80s finding guy friends, though money and inheritances often get in the way, so they just visit or live together. I am 80 and going to Utah State University Summer Citizens program for classes in Spanish, world econ, genealogy, Westward Migration, How Tea Affected Politics, Geology, Cloning. I would like to be cloned…
Iris, I wish they COULD clone you. You’re such an inspiration. Readers, if you’re middle-aged or older, what are you looking forward to? What dreams motivate you? What horizons draw you onward?
May you have an interesting life.
It’s said to be an ancient Chinese curse. Implicit in those gentle words is the premise that an interesting life can be hard, full of drama and challenge and change. The wisher is conveying his desire to see the beneficiary’s feet knocked out from under her.
Change is hard, but it’s interesting to see how we travel through it. In my own case, several months ago I promised to watch my infant granddaughter when her mother went back to work. The gratitude in the eyes of both parents was more than enough to offset the panic I felt as the first day approached. Would I do a good job? Would she suffer? Would my body suffer? My work? My marriage?
So I started babysitting. Far from my marriage suffering, it developed a new richness, because my husband wanted to be in on this babysitting thing, and he helped me almost every day and grew as attached to our little granddaughter as I did. He developed confidence, able to discuss babies with parents and grandparents alike. In the evening we’d verbally elbow each other aside, celebrating our grandparental influence on the little one.
Things went really well, beautifully in fact. I got to see my kids every morning before they left for work. I took the baby for walks in her stroller, and got down on the floor with her. She taught me the meaning of her different cries, body language and facial expressions. I began to sit in the rocker in her room as she fell asleep, learning to slow down and appreciate the quiet, meditative moments. To think that I’ve come so far in my life as to be sitting in my son’s house, listening to his little girl sleep – that I could be this old – that time could be moving on at such a clip.
A few days ago, I came down with a bad cold and the baby had no sitter because my backups weren’t available, so her parents took her to a childcare provider who has long watched the children of their coworkers. And my little gal did fine, except she cried a little.
I wonder what she thought as the day passed? Was she happy or scared? There were three other small children there, and word is that she cottoned to a little boy, not yet two. It’s good for her to start socializing with other kids. In fact, it went so well that my son is going to ask the provider to reserve a spot for her next fall.
It’s good for me, too. I’ve already told my son and DIL that my body can’t handle watching her fulltime as she becomes more mobile, so this was a blessing in disguise. But I’m wrecked over this.
I can’t wait to see her again, next Tuesday, when I begin the last month of babysitting before her parents, both teachers, begin summer recess. It amazes me that she is moving into the next stage, and I wonder if our relationship will change, but would be a small change in what has turned out to be a tumultuous three years for my family.
Ultimately, it’s just life and we’ll adjust, as we did through Dad’s death, and Mom’s breaking her leg, and my sibling blowing up the family. I’m impressed at how resilient and adaptable we all are, and the little gal is made of us. In spite of my sadness over not babysitting next fall, I know she’ll be fine.
I’ve come full circle again, from fear of watching her to fear of not watching her to joy at the prospect of spending more time with my sweetie, golfing and traveling, reading and writing.
Here is where I might say: “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” But I won’t say that.
I will say that it has been interesting.
My greatest fear is sleepwalking through my life – finding out at the end of it that I’ve made some ridiculous miscalculation and wasted a great gift. So it seemed like a smart idea to read “Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age” by Susan Jacoby. Bill Moyers, who I respect, had vouched for her.
The premise of “Never…” is that we Boomers are in denial about the fact that we will get old and die. If we were more realistic, we’d enjoy our lives more, feel more empowered, and save a lot of money on snake oil. She says it’s cool to see portrayals of 90-year-olds mountain-biking and skydiving, but it’s not realistic, and if we accepted what is really going to happen to us, we might be better prepared.
I liked the idea. I want to be prepared and use every ounce of my life to the best of my ability, so I read the book. I finished the book. And I have never been so depressed.
If you ever thought you might age and die gracefully, expect Jacoby to bludgeon your expectations with fact, figures, historical stats and anecdotes. She even clucks away the idea of old people becoming “wise” in exchange for our old age, asking why we would suddenly become wise if we’ve been average to stupid all our lives?
I kept reading, thinking that Jacoby would eventually get to the part where she distills all her negative findings into some kind of wisdom, some guide for gleaning the most from our lives in spite of all the reasons not to. The most she can muster is this concession to her nonfiction-writing friends, who urged her to end the book on an up-note:
“And that just about sums up my ‘positive advice’: live in a place that forces you to stay on your feet, and look for work wherever and whenever you can find it.”
At the end of this book I felt like stockpiling Vicodin. Possibly motivated by the tragic loss of her longtime companion to Alzheimers’, Jacoby set out to prove to the rest of us that we have little reason to hope, and she did a good job of making her case.
However, I think the beauty of humanity is that, faced with the knowledge of insurmountable odds, we still fling ourselves heroically against the dark unknown, choosing to believe that somehow, in some small way, we might triumph. Even if, as in this case, we know we will lose the final battle, we nevertheless choose to find meaning in the prosecution of this very personal war.
Older peeps sometimes think they’re starting to figure out this thing called LIFE, and then they’re tempted to make lists of the things that work. Our rules help us feel more secure, as if the world has a bit of logic to it after all.
My former boss and mentor once told me he had developed a list of rules or guidelines he found useful throughout his life. At the time I thought it was amusing. Old people did stuff like that (he was maybe 45?) However, now that I’m older, I would love to see it. Recently I asked him if I could please get a copy, but he professed he never constructed such a list (see Rule #5, below.)
My husband invented the “90/10” rule. After thirty years of selling cars for a living, he’s studied every kind of human behavior. He says people tend to over-buy for emotional reasons, but if they knew what they needed their vehicle to do 90% of the time, they’d be happy and save a lot of money. Maybe you don’t need 4-wheel drive if you only go on an occasional picnic in the hills.
90/10 means Mom needs to live where she can have a lot of friends, because she is a social butterfly, as opposed to immediate proximity to her doctor, who she doesn’t see that often. 90/10 means it’s a good day if I accomplished 90% of my to-do list. 90/10 means we should spend more money on education than prisons.
Here are some of my life lessons or rules. I hope you’ll contribute yours:
- Ask. Listen.
- Don’t make eye contact with maniacs. They’re looking for somebody to torture, and it doesn’t have to be you.
- Before you blow your top, consider the price you’ll have to pay later, because there is always a price.
- She who cares the most, loses. Sick but true.
- Cool politeness is a useful form of cruelty.
Do you have rules for living?
Kindle readers can email me at LMSpreen@Yahoo.com.
Remember that old song, Boomers? Here it is on YouTube if you’re feeling nostalgic.
My big sister and I sometimes smile that refrain to each other when we see a particular example of self-indulgence or nit-pickiness. The subtext is, Who has time for such foolishness?
I write about this today because of a column by Lynn Casteel Harper, a goodhearted woman, a chaplain in fact, who lives a mindful life. Lynn writes of her friend who, each year, apparently peruses his vocabulary in search of words to excise. What a luxurious life he must live, overflowing with time for excessive contemplation.
I live in a 55+ community with lots of retired peeps, so I have a front row seat for this phenomenon. Some of us, no longer running to jobs, have too much time on our hands and lose our perspective. We develop new bad habits of insularity, tribalism, and obsession with our own needs.
I don’t mean to be flip about folks who have worked hard for years and earned a chance to rest. God bless ’em. And who can say how a person should live his or her life? I guess what bugs me is the preoccupation with one’s own needs when there is so much good waiting to be done in our community. We’re so blessed, being retired, but it’s the way of the mind to get accustomed to any situation in which we spend a lot of time. So we nitpick the effectiveness or attitude of the housekeeper, or the degree of sparkling purity of the Olympic-sized pool.
Lately, I’m getting used to spending part of every day at the rehab hospital where my mom is laid up. At first it seemed like a place to avoid, but I’m getting to know the workers and patients, and where you can get coffee or fresh ice for a pack, and where the fresh towels are so I can wash Mom’s hair because the staff just can’t. I definitely do not have time to ponder which word I might next excise from my vocabulary.
I’ve been guilty from time to time of preoccupation with myself, but as soon as I have too much time on my hands, life tends to snap my head around and I end up chastened. I wrote about one such period here, and my conclusion after that experience was that next time I start doing too much navel-gazing, I’ll go volunteer in a rest home or something.
“…the control we want to think we have over our lives is…an illusion. It is an illusion we are accepting of because the opposite of it is hard to bear. The truth of the matter is that life can change on a dime, tragedy is merely a phone call away. But what that made me understand is that not only do I not have control over everything, but I am also not responsible for everything. Life happens and we move into the changes, like it or not. It doesn’t really take courage because we have no other choice. Every day the sun comes up and the sun goes down and we get through another day.” – Marilyn Jean
That is from Marilyn’s blog, ThereMustBeSomeMistake. Marilyn, a former RN, speaks with such a moving, rich voice about her experience with breast cancer, and her new online friends are checking in with their experiences. I thought you might enjoy getting to know her. I’ve never had cancer but I’ve had a lot of surgeries and several cancer scares, so I relate to her words. What she says above just hammered my heart. I feel the same way, so much so that I made up a scene in Dakota Blues about the exact same thing, and I’ve included that excerpt at the end of this post.
I also want to turn you on to a helpful friend, Dr. Melanie G. Dr. G is a psychologist, and you might want to follow her on Twitter. She is such a curious, thoughtful reader and prolific linker that you could almost follow her alone and still have a cornucopia of helpful articles to read every day.
Finally, here’s my excerpt, where recently fired middle-aged workaholic Karen Grace sets out from the Dakotas in a Roadtrek 190 camper van:
“Room enough, and time.” The phrase tickled around the edges of her memory, something she’d read in a book or heard in a movie, a blessing proclaimed by the Native Americans about places such as this. Here on this highway in the vast freedom of the Northern Plains, her mind uncluttered by a daily agenda or the demands of a casual populace, she could permit herself the luxury of thought. She slowed the van until it came to a stop. The wind blew in the windows, rearranging her hair until she was blind and thrumming past her ears until she was deaf. It rocked the van but Frieda still slept, and the highway was deserted for miles in both directions. Karen put the van in park and eased the door open. Her bare feet touched the blacktop, warm but not hot. She filled her lungs with the dry, clean air, right off the plains and miles from any town. She heard a squirrel chirping and saw antelope walking along on the other side of the barbed wire fence, tearing clumps of grass from the rich earth. The wild fields on both sides of the road revealed an astonishing palette of light yellow, orange, pink, blue and three colors of green: pea, mint, and forest. The rippling grasses were topped by feathery beige flowers that resembled wheat.
“Insignificance: for the first time she considered that she need not accept responsibility for everybody and everything within range in her world. In taking on that responsibility she had not only overburdened herself, but shortchanged those for whom she worried. Why had she assumed them incapable, taking that weight on her own shoulders? Other people surely carried within them their own strength, their own resources, and she finally saw that she was not responsible: not for her parents’ satisfaction with their lives, not for her relatives nor her former employees at Global Health, nor for what happened to the planet after she left it.
“Instead, she saw herself as a bright, vivid figure standing on a timeline, her ancestors barely visible behind her, their small beloved bodies dim and fading into history. In front of her she saw only stick figures moving into the unknowable and impersonal future, as anonymous as the ancestors. As if she slid a magnifying glass along the ruler of history, the figures became larger and clearer as they edged nearer in proximity to her own life. They gained names and identities, but only for that small space in time they shared with her.
“In front of the van she stood on the center line of the deserted highway, her arms outstretched, eyes closed. The wind embraced her with its clovered breath, wrapped itself around her waist, between her legs and under her arms, lifting her. She turned in a slow circle, her arms reaching out, her fingertips lengthening to touch all that she could see in three hundred and sixty degrees of solitude and peace.
“It was enough. It was everything.”
I’m laughing about how a friend recently had a run-in with a younger person. This younger person expressed doubt that older people could learn new things. [Read more…]