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Emails to my Therapist

The Touchy Matter of Getting Old and Possibly Dying

Dear Therapist Nicholas, I seem to have reached The Age of Others Keeling Over. People keep getting old, falling ill, some actually dying. This sort of thing has happened before, but back then it was an aberration, cases of dying too young. Now I’m 68, healthy, and still blessed with an adolescent sense of  immortality that I hope to keep for a long time. But I’m seeing a trend around me.

Exit Signs

I saw this exit-watching process happen to my mother. She was 56 when my father died.  Three months later her mother died. And then friend after friend, and she had the misfortune of having an enormous number of friends. Once she went out of town for a week and when she came back she found on the kitchen table the obits of three friends, placed there by brother Franc with a vase of flowers.

Her father died. Her younger sister died. Children of friends started to go. I didn’t see how she could stand it.

But she’s still keeping on. I have a feeling, and a hope, that I have a lot of her longevity genes. If I’m right, I’ll likely have a similar experience of getting old.

Some years ago I began to notice in the paper the obits of the ruling generation I covered as a young newspaper reporter in Raleigh. That generation was twenty years older than me and and they had begun to make their exit.

This week I learned that the dear neighborhood pal of my earliest childhood died in January. That’s her on the left. She was two years younger than that sophisticate on the right. We were a couple of little fashionistas, as you can see.

 

This “exit” business comes as a shock, never mind that we all know it’s inevitable.

Years ago, a book review in The New York Times said my novel Sister India showed me to be “a writer with a keen sense of the precariousness of our lives….” At the time, that surprised me. I didn’t think I had any such sense. I was sure I didn’t. Now I’m starting to acquire it.

The awareness does add a sharper edge to appreciation for being alive, for my loved ones who are living. And so far, I’ve been lucky. Several of my people have survived recent close calls. Both those situations are likely at some point to change.

The Hot Roller Cure

Unless, of course, technology comes to the rescue as I foolishly trust it will.  The arrival of hot rollers in my life back in the early 60s first gave me this confidence. I’d begun in my very early teens to have serious concern about whether I’d ever be able to get married, since it was absolutely necessary for me to sleep in pink foam rubber curlers. Surely I couldn’t let anyone outside my family of origin see me with my hair rolled up. Then came hot rollers, which did the job in a few minutes in the morning. The problem was solved.

In fact, technology has already saved the day for me lately. What happened to my mother almost forty years ago — losing her husband and mother three months apart — would have happened to me this past winter, but for good luck and good medical treatment. Bob had his very close call in December, Mom in late February. Both got good treatment and survived. These outcomes are both sobering and wildly encouraging.

At some point, though, I’m likely to discover — in a gut way — that they and I and quite a few others are going to die.

Closer to Life?

Some years ago, I was discussing with my psychologist husband the situation of a man who was losing his wife to cancer. Going through that, Bob said, can bring a person “closer to life.” I saved that perplexing phrase for later consideration, no doubt knowing that at some point it could come in handy.

It’s paradoxical of course to think that facing death brings you closer to life. And what do the words really mean: how can you get closer to life than being alive?

The Deep Stuff

What makes that greater closeness, I now discover, is coming to know more intimately the most profound experiences of being physically and emotionally alive. I suspect anyone who has a child gets an early dose of that immediacy. But in the course of daily routines — work, errands, getting things done — it’s probably pretty easy for anyone to lose awareness of the deep stuff. The raw emotion, the pulsing messy heated bodily life.  The precariousness.

Our forgetting and the shocks of re-connection are both no doubt necessary; who could stand a constant awareness or a permanent detachment?

More on all this later, obviously. Thanks for listening.

Peggy

 

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Comments

  • Sandy Joyce
    March 25, 2017 at 10:56 am Reply

    I too am coming to a different awareness of the aging of the body. I call it getting more mileage because it is still hard to accept getting old. How do we not see ourselves as “getting old”? I too am 68, about to be 69 tomorrow, and it all hit me last year as I prepared to attend my 50th class reunion. I thought, in two years we will all be 70!!! How did that happen? I used to say that I would not consider myself a senior until at least 70, and here it comes in a year! Perhaps the problem lies in being of the 60’s generation, as in 1960’s, and how could we ever grow old if always saw ourselves as Flower Children? But then perhaps the realization of being older, or old, happens to every generation at some point. It is difficult to see one’s own self as aging. Actually when we attune to our spirit more closely, we do not feel old as spirit does not age. When we are healthy, we fail to see ourselves as vulnerable to the conditions of the aging body. So when issues arise in our own bodies, it feels like a betrayal; it is not supposed to happen to me because I have done everything right in taking care of my body. Fairness does not play a part. One realizes that bodies do change over time and acceptance is the only way to find peace at least for me. It is not easy. And yes, losing people around us brings the awareness of the vulnerability and preciousness of the life force in each human into keen focus. Thank you for sharing your insights and allowing commentary.

    • Peggy Payne
      March 25, 2017 at 1:56 pm Reply

      I greatly appreciate the commentary, Sandy. I went to my 50th class reunion last fall. A staggering number of years, but it was wonderful fun. Oddly, it appeared that people of a lot of different ages were there. The process had hit us all somewhat differently; people were dealing with it pretty differently too. One sobering fact for us: 130+ out of about 800 graduates had died. Seemed like a lot. I think of old as starting at 80, but then I know some 80-somethings who are pretty frisky and some late-70-somethings who are very far from slowing down. And you’re so right about fairness not being part of the deal. Some of my ailing pals are the ones who, unlike me, have been eating kale the whole way.

  • George Watkins
    March 25, 2017 at 11:25 am Reply

    Beautifully expressed. Good therapy to read a blog of this import amid the shallow political chaos. Thanks for reminding us to be mindful – as best we can. Another way to say it: Don’t die, before you die.

    Thanks for posting Peggy. Be well. Keep writing and bringing the light!

    • Peggy Payne
      March 25, 2017 at 1:49 pm Reply

      Oh, yes, the political chaos; now I remember. But we had a good day yesterday, George. Thanks for your thoughts on this. I’m glad to “see” you.

  • March 25, 2017 at 11:47 am Reply

    Peggy,
    This and your last few posts have been beautiful, sensitive and eloquent. Thank you for expressing what so many of us feel but either can’t or don’t feel comfortable putting into words for all to see.

    • Peggy Payne
      March 25, 2017 at 1:48 pm Reply

      You’re doing pretty well at blogging things into words over at your new re-shaping site, Jim. Thanks.

  • March 25, 2017 at 1:07 pm Reply

    Another real and thought provoking post on a topic many of us would, like you, rather put off thinking about. Thanks, Peggy, for this writing.

    • Peggy Payne
      March 25, 2017 at 1:47 pm Reply

      Thank you, Susan. I seem to have an ongoing theme lately. But it does evolve.

  • John Rosenthal
    March 25, 2017 at 3:42 pm Reply

    Reading your blog, I couldn’t help but remember this poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I used to hear that one grew out of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and perhaps that’s true. But thankfully, I’m growing in to her again:

    I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
    So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
    Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
    With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
    Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
    Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
    A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
    A formula, a phrase remains,–but the best is lost.
    The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love, —
    They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
    Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
    More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
    Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave,
    Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
    Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
    I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

    • Peggy Payne
      March 25, 2017 at 4:18 pm Reply

      Brava, Edna! Bravo, John! I love this poem. I never considered outgrowing Millay. Thanks for reminding me of it.

  • March 25, 2017 at 5:12 pm Reply

    Hi Peggy, This resonated with me in a number of ways. I turned 69 on March 10. March 11th was my mother’s funeral. She was 101 and had gone through losing almost everyone in her generation and many who were friends that were 20 years younger than her. She did not suffer sadness at theses losses during the last 6 or 7 years of her life because she was no longer able to remember the people who had died. That loss of memory is another kind of dying – painful to watch in another, yet not painful, I think, to the one experiencing it. Strangely, I have (an am ) losing way more friends and contemporaries in my 60s than my parents did. I have lost a life long best friend, three college boyfriends, a close college friend, a college roommate, my high school sweetheart, about a dozen members of my high school graduating glass of 100, (i just had my 50th reunion last June) and 6 friends from the neighborhood I lived in for 28 years while raising my kids. It seems like many of my contemporaries our dying young….mostly from cancer. Of course, each of these deaths brings thoughts of the precariousness of life. The deaths that have shaken me most profoundly, though, are the deaths of children of my friends – losses that seem so unbearable, so unfair, and out of the natural order of things. Of course, really, how do we even know what the natural order of things is on a grand scale? I alternate between the ” increased appreciation of life” and the “worry that anyone can die at any time” states. But, I have another feeling too that at my good moments (and thankfully I have many very good moments) supercedes the others. Death does seem to me like the next step of life, the beginning of another form of existence. I don’t mean heaven, or even reincarnation, just becoming part of the universe in some way…a different way than we are now. For me, that is not scary at all. What is scary is being the one left behind as my mom was.
    Aging…that is a whole different thing. I spent the first 50 years always being told (even as a small child) that I looked young for my age. Even in my 50s,, people thought I looked much younger. Because of this I, somewhat smugly, thought I would deal with physical signs of aging gracefully. Haha….not so. I hate that now I look my age. (i think being a single parent to 5 teenage boys during my 50s accelerated the pace of my aging so that now I am all “caught up.” ) i also find arthritis , lack of flexibility and other minor changes annoying. I am not aging gracefully. I am aging reluctantly and wondering what in the world I will be like if I live to be 100 like my mom. But, mentally, I feel young and I am still doing new things and enjoying them. I go to open mics to share my poetry or my latest essay; I do Moth-type storytelling and recently I auditioned for a part in a web series and got it. So I am not stagnant, and not even slowing down, but still I am not a fan of aging….
    Sort of a ramble, but thought I would respond to your FB post asking for comments. Obviously the topics you blogged about have been on my mind, so your blog prompted some good self-reflection for me. Thanks, Peggy.

    • Peggy Payne
      March 25, 2017 at 7:28 pm Reply

      You sure aren’t stagnant, Jan. Sounds like you’re doing very well. And five teenage boys! That alone seems quite a lot for one life.

      I’m sorry for your many losses — and I imagine losing a mother you’ve had for 69 years might be in some ways harder than at a time when you might have expected it to happen. I know a man who lost his mother in his mid-70s and had a really hard time dealing with it. My mother commented, “He’s most too old to lose his mother.” Which I begin to understand.

  • Bob Braxton
    March 25, 2017 at 7:28 pm Reply

    I am 72. Thirteen days ago, my sister 5 1/2 years younger. Before that, male cousin (paternal) son of 3rd born, before that male cousin son of 4th born; also, maternal female, daughter of second-born (of 9). All younter relatives.

    • Peggy Payne
      March 25, 2017 at 7:59 pm Reply

      Thirteen days ago! Painfully recent. I’m sorry, Bob.

  • Amey Miller
    March 26, 2017 at 12:12 am Reply

    Wow! Great to return home ,after a day of pressing my forehead against my art , to this robust spool of responses to your post. And, surprise, it is on a subject much on my mind! It seems like on others minds as well. Us Boomers are Listening Up! My 50th high school reunions (there were two, longish story) were two years ago. There’s a self-selecting aspect —- people come who feel up to the challenge. So there was a lot of reason to celebrate. But, sigh, there is the other part of the story, and I feel that is in some ways really helpful. The part that, as John’s poem points out, is not enthusiastic about what we are looking at, for ourselves and others. But could our sadness and struggle be an aid here? “The Art of Losing” —- famous poem by Elizabeth Bishop —- Closer to life, as Bob said a while back?
    My father died at 45, my mother at 64. I don’t have a super model of living long, and don’t, with various conditions and life experiences I’ve had, expect to be up there in my nineties. I could be proven wrong. But I am extremely interested in how to navigate this period of life, where we, as one response said, have kind of one foot in the next world. What do we have to offer, what do we have to experience, be part of, with a very new awareness? Thanks for being on the path alongside a number of us, your created posse, Peggy —— Blessings to all, Amey

    • Peggy Payne
      March 27, 2017 at 6:17 pm Reply

      Thanks for your generous blessings, Amey. And I love the image of your pressing your forehead against your art. You lost parents early and I hope you do make it to 90+!

  • Emily Turner Knight
    March 28, 2017 at 1:22 am Reply

    Your commentaries are beautifully written and emotionally powerful. All of us at this age question these mysteries. You are able to put those thoughts into words

    • Peggy Payne
      March 28, 2017 at 2:24 am Reply

      Thank you, Emily. You are kind.

  • MARGARET
    March 29, 2017 at 3:47 pm Reply

    I appreciate your natural eloquence, Peggy. I am 54 and several months ago, my best friend and mentor died (86). A true gift to remember her and all she touched and taught in so many ways. Giving never ends, as receiving never ends. Just how we give and how we receive is determined by where we are in our own love of life. (Some may call this maturity!) A few weeks ago I went to the funeral of a beautiful 28-year-old woman, family friend, and the loss is greatest and ongoing for those closest to her–the beauty was shown at her “viewing,” when people of all ages, different races, and from different places, some who had known Lauren all of her life and some only for a few months, told how Lauren had added to their lives in such a positive way. Already, she knew how to love. What a legacy. Thanks for your posts. Keep them coming!

    • Peggy Payne
      March 29, 2017 at 5:03 pm Reply

      Thanks for your stories, Margaret. Sorry about your two losses, though you’re surely dealing with them in a positive way.

  • […] reaction to my recent post, The Touchy Subject of Getting Old and Possibly Dying, comes from Dan Wakefield who turns 85 next month. Dan is a dear friend and the author of […]

  • […] a lot of focus on death recently. Once Mom and Bob were clearly going to make it– and another loved one gave us a scare and […]

  • […] Recent brushes with death have been on my mind — and now, by chance, a story of mine has just been published that takes […]

  • Bonnie Tincher
    June 4, 2017 at 2:50 am Reply

    I enjoyed your honest and insightful blog. I am a nurse in Labor and Delivery and help families deal with miscarriages, stillbirths and Neonatal deaths. It puts perspective on being grateful for life at every age and stage. These parents are instantly thrown into a life situation that most of them never expected and are not prepared to deal with. They are shocked at the precariousness of life and the finality of the events. I am 60 and have been a nurse 40 years. I have no idea how my death will come, but know there will be people around my family to help them. I have no idea how many deaths of family and friends I will experience before my own. I have already lost grandparents, my mom and dad and oldest brother. I do know that I am blessed to have served so many families. I am blessed to have the family and friends that I have. I embrace the now. The end could come suddenly or eventually, but in the meanwhile I have lived as a daughter, sister, aunt, mother, wife, friend and colleague. I have had purpose, happiness, joy and accomplishment. So I will continue until the end of this physical life and enter whatever is beyond.

    • Peggy Payne
      June 5, 2017 at 2:37 am Reply

      You have a wonderful perspective, Bonnie, and I think likely you’re an excellent nurse, family member and friend.

  • Kenju
    June 8, 2017 at 3:34 am Reply

    When my father was in his late 80’s, he said to me: “every time I read the obits, there is someone I know. If my friends don’t quit dying, there will be no one left to attend my funeral “. He died at 92, and over 500 people came to his service. I am 76 and 8 months now and I hope to make it to my 90’s. – as long as I am able to think and move about on my own.

    • Peggy Payne
      June 9, 2017 at 12:48 pm Reply

      And I suspect you’ll have over 500 too, Kenju, and why stop at 90-something!

  • Cheryl Matthews
    June 15, 2017 at 1:11 pm Reply

    I just turned 70 last month… and truthfully, am wondering HOW and WHEN did this happen! I must have been sleeping half of the time. At the age of 65 I decided to retire, and Pursue Things That I Always Wanted To Do. I thought, if I don’t start doing them NOW…then WHEN am I going to do them. The word WORTHY came to me. I only want to do that which is worthy of my time. If it means taking a college course I’m interested in, seeing my children and grandchildren more, visiting a dear friend in France, or making a soufflé… it must be worthy and time well spent. Dressing sexy for my husband, or sharing martinis with my girlfriends, or even showing up regularly at the gym… WE ARE NOT DEAD YET. Oh, and this Sunday.. I think I will audition for a show girl at the Senior Follies!

    • Peggy Payne
      June 16, 2017 at 1:35 am Reply

      I can tell you’ll make a terrific show girl, Cheryl. Sounds to me like you’ve been making some truly worthy decisions. I’m going to start using that word as a touchstone myself. Thank you!

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