The Touchy Matter of Getting Older and Older…An Update
Dear Therapist Nicholas, I first wrote this six years ago when I was merely 68. It began: 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.
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 still kept on–until age 96. That’s when we lost her. I have a feeling, and a hope, that I have a lot of her #longevity genes. If I’m right, I’ll likely have, for many more years, a similar experience of getting old.
It was quite a while back when 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.
More recently I learned that the dear neighborhood pal of my earliest childhood had died. 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….” That surprised me. It’s true that the novel is set in the Hindu holy city on the Ganges believed to be the most auspicious place to die. However the story’s about a guest house full of travelers caught in a city-wide curfew with the troubled inn-keeper and the man she secretly loves. I didn’t think I was writing about precariousness of life or that I had any such sense. I was sure I didn’t. Now I’m starting to acquire it.
In fact, my most recent novel, My Life On Earth And Elsewhere is a story of The Big Mysteries, of #lifebeforelife and life after death, of nearby and ever-present spirit worlds. Call it fantasy–or spiritual exploration, or wishful thinking, or faith. In any case, it shows me how much these matters are increasingly on my mind.
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 serious close calls. Both those situations are likely at some point to change.
The Hot Roller Cure
Unless, of course, technology (in the form of medical innovation) 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.
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, medical technology has already saved the day for me lately. What happened to my mother more than forty years ago — losing her husband and mother three months apart — would have happened to me when I was 68 but for good luck and good medical treatment. Bob had his very close call with his heart then in December, Mom in late February. Both got good treatment and survived.
At some point, though, I’m likely to discover — in a gut way — that I and quite a few others are going to die.
Closer to Life?
Some years ago, I was discussing with my psychologist husband (who is now retiring) 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 #closertolife. 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?
And Six Years Later?
Have I learned anything more in the last six years since I wrote most of what’s above? Mainly, I still feel that I’m extraordinarily lucky, to keep my health and my husband and so many other loved ones.
I do know a bit more about the medical world, since Bob has just finished his second round of cancer treatment. He is tired, but we’re assured that the cancer will not get him.
The loss of my mother was hard, but I knew she was ready to go. Also, having watched her suffer in her last five days, I was ready as well. Again, I was lucky; she’d been sharp and vital and still herself up until that time. My response after her death: I was depressed all of every weekend for the first six months. On weekdays–which is to say, workdays–I felt okay. Years later, I still talk to her often in my mind–and try to channel her business skill when I’m dealing with finances.
One surprise: her death re-opened the wound of my father’s death, 45 years ago. In some way, to some degree, it was as if Mom had represented him while she was still with us.
My favorite parent picture
Getting Older and Older
This winter I turn 75. That’s a number that seems important, if one hasn’t already passed it. I’m thinking of celebrating by trying once again to get up on a surfboard, to get some serious instruction and not give up until I’ve ridden at least one wave.
We’ll see. That’s one thing I’ve learned, that I cannot say for sure. Instead: we’ll see.
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Tags: appreciation for being alive, cases of dying too young, closer to life, experience of getting old, facing death, falling ill, friends started to go, Hindu holy city on the Ganges, life before life, longevity genes, loved ones who are living, medical innovation, most auspicious place to die, mother died, my father died, My Life On Earth And Elsewhere, Peggy Payne, physically and emotionally alive, precariousness of our lives, Sister India, spirit worlds, spiritual exploration, still kept on, the big mysteries, we lost her