Everyone has to get old, if they’re lucky. Unless you die young someday your body is going to start wearing out. There are a lot of trite observations that have been made about this fact. “Old age is not for sissies” my mom likes to point out occasionally, when the betrayals of her body get the best of her. But I’m more inclined to think “old age is for everyone, whether we like it or not”. Courage has nothing to do with it, unless you want to think that courage has everything to do with living your life to the best of your ability.
When I was younger I would look at elderly people and seriously consider the possibility that they had never been young. I would watch someone white-haired and wrinkled slowly make their way down the street and find it impossible to imagine that they were once a teenager like me. And sometimes I STILL can’t really imagine that my body is going to wear out even though I know intellectually that it must.
Of course these thoughts are going through my head now because of my mother’s recent health problems. She’s had one setback after another in this latest round of illness, but I’ve watched with something close to amazement as she refuses to admit anything close to defeat and gathers her strength to try to regain her ability to walk and speak. If she has any say in the matter she’ll make it too. She’s not ready to leave this earth any time soon.
This reminds me of my grandmother, my mother’s mother, in some ways. Although Omi suffered from Alzheimer’s and was in a nursing home for many years, even when she was dying she didn’t give up easily. She fought for every breath right to the end.
So is this a family trait – this determination to survive no matter what? Or is this a simple fact of life for most people? People want to live and that’s all there is to it. They’ll fight for their lives even when they’re old and life is mostly painful and difficult. They’ll still cling to it, finding joy and comfort in little things, happy to awaken each additional day.
I watch my own signs of aging with a combination of amusement and occasional horror. I tell myself I don’t mind my grey hairs or wrinkles, yet I keep the grey hidden and apply all kinds of lotions to my skin to try to keep it young and supple-looking. I know that someday my body will begin to slow down and I won’t be able to do everything that I can do now, yet I pride myself on having run 2 half marathons in the past year and hate the thought of not being able to run any longer.
My mind is probably my area of greatest concern. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s and now it appears that my aunt (my mother’s sister) has developed it as well. My father had a form of dementia before he passed away. I clearly notice my mind’s failings and while I reassure myself that repeating stories and forgetting why I entered a room are very normal, I can’t help but wonder if they might be a sign of something more serious.
Writing all this down has been helpful to me in a way. This past week, trying to get my mother’s affairs in order and set things up so that she can leave the hospital when she is ready and go to a rehab facility has been both stressful and sad. I’m torn between wanting to be back in New Hampshire helping Lee get us settled in our new house, and feeling like my mother really needs me to be here with her in St. Louis. What does one do about an elderly parent that lives 2,000 miles away? At least I’m not in Hong Kong anymore!
I know this next year is going to entail a lot of trips to St. Louis and a lot of occasions when I will feel like no matter where I am I ought to be somewhere else. That’s okay. I have known for years and years that someday this would come to pass and there are many ways in which it could be much worse. But there are things I wish for. I wish that this next part of my mother’s life goes smoothly, that the choices we need to make are clear, and that we choose correctly. I hope she can be made comfortable and happy, no matter what happens next. And above all, I hope that she will be safe and pain-free. I’ll do everything I can to make this happen for her, but I know too that it’s not all in my control.
The most important thing right now is to take things one step at a time and try not to worry about what will happen next. I need to have faith that I will be able to handle this next step, and the one after that, and even the one after THAT. But, I only have to handle one step at a time.