Do you know what I’ve discovered? Life is a hop, skip, and a jump into eternity: one day you’re nineteen and the next day you’re in your sixties trying to figure out just who the hell is staring back at you from the mirror. I didn’t actually realize that my life was zipping by on a high-speed train until I ran into a middle-aged father with his thirteen-year-old daughter the other day, and he introduced me as his former third-grade teacher.
The speed with which my life is careening toward the great unknown really became evident when my husband (WW) and I kidnapped my mentor (MM) from her assisted living community and took her on a road trip. We had planned the trip for a year making sure everything we did on our excursion would enhance her well-being, including the blanket, house shoes, and beverage of choice we’d set up in the back of the mini-van. WW and I even arrived a day before the advent of the trip to spend time in my mentor’s assisted living community to check it out, make sure things were still kosher, and take her and her girlfriends out for a night on the town (6:00 – 8:00 p.m.)
MM and I met when I was sixteen and she was thirty-six, but now I’m sixty-three and she’s eighty-three. I’m minus a uterus, my nerves are completely shattered, and all my bodily elasticity has disappeared. She is blind in one eye, partially deaf in both ears, and sporting a twelve-inch scar from open-heart surgery that almost killed her. Our week-long vacation together was filled with stories and laughter of how we met and where life had taken us. But during our trip I became mildly depressed at seeing this once vibrant woman, who had tirelessly “pushed me” out of a life of uneducated drudgery, barely able to get in and out of a car, or read a menu without a 13x magnifying glass, or get through the day without a nap. The only thing left is her brilliant memory and even it is beginning to show signs of wear.
“What do you miss the most, MM?” I asked as I was helping her get ready for her spa appointment at a posh resort we had checked into.
“Oh, driving, reading, travel, gourmet dining, bending down and being able to get back up — just about everything” she said with a slight chuckle. “It seems as if with one wave of a wand, I lost what I like to refer to as the ‘I used to’s.’ It wasn’t that long ago that I walked the streets of Africa, woke up to an earthquake in Japan, cruised the Mediterranean, led tours through the Hawaiian Islands, sampled the excellent cuisine of Toronto, and snapped pictures of the glaciers in Alaska from my cruise ship.”
“Oh God, I don’t know what I fear most: the inability to read anymore or the inability to travel to experience other people and cultures. Actually, that’s not true. I fear it all! Oddly enough, I don’t fear dying; I fear the process. Let me drop dead, right here, right now at your feet, and I’ll be good to go!”
“Well, I think most people feel the way you do. But old age creeps up on you so fast that the only thing you have time to do is ‘cry uncle,’ take a deep breath, and eliminate the words ‘used to’ out of your vocabulary. I ‘used to’ do so-and-so will break your heart. Consequently, you have to substitute the words, ‘instead of.’
Instead of traveling the world, I’ll visit my neighbors every evening in various parts of the building who are shut-ins, and we’ll reminisce about our travels as we munch on the delicious ‘fruit from around the world’ that you
send me every month,” my mentor said as she laughed at the absurdity of it all.
“Kill me now,” I moaned as I finished helping her put on her spa sandals.
“Honey, nothing about living is easy, and getting old could be the worst of the journey,” my mentor said as she patted my cheek. “I have discovered that life can be something we constantly look back on with regret or courageously look forward to with lowered expectations, unafraid of the changes that are inevitable.”
As I briefly imagined myself six-feet below the ground, I had an internal “hissy fit,” and I decided that acquiescing to old age is a bunch of shit! I didn’t tell my mentor this, but I’m aligned with the poet, Dylan Thomas, “I will not go quietly into that good night!” No disrespect to MM (I love her as if she were my own mother), but I hate what getting old represents, and the thought of it makes me want to puke. When I looked around the assisted living center (AL) where my mentor lives, she seemed to be one of the lucky ones. MM is enthusiastic about life, mentally astute and alert, and the words “adult diapers” are not in her vocabulary. There were some residents who made me want to cry because their minds and their bodily functions were on the fritz — some days they remembered who you were, some days they didn’t — like a flickering light bulb that is about to go dead but has a few days of life left in it. I agree with Truman Capote: “Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.” I figure I’ve got about fifteen more years before I get to the climax of my third act,
and what if I’m more like the unlucky ones and less like my mentor?
While I sat in the lounge waiting for MM to finish her massage so that I could help her get dressed, I began to fret over my “third act.” Maybe if I drew up a list of “deal breakers” for my old age that I could put into place while I was still coherent, it might make my twilight years more pleasant.
Eleanor’s Old Age Manifesto (currently open-ended)
I vow to give the lion’s share of my money to the first one of my kids who will (on a weekly basis) come and pluck the “white” hairs (currently growing like weeds) out of my chubby “chocolate” chin when I can no longer see well enough to do so myself. Apparently, chin hair is one of the first signs that a woman is entering the third act of her life.
- What I noticed in the AL center: The men were more clean-shaven than the women. Once proud, Chanel-wearing, school teachers, nurses, secretaries, and politicians had more hair on their chins than on their heads (not exactly, but you get the point). Their attitudes seemed to be, “if I can’t see the 12-inch hairs forming corn-rolls on my lady-chin than maybe you can’t either.” (Where in the hell were the tweezer brigades: their daughters, nieces, daughters-in-law, and their gay fashionista sons?)
I vow to invent a filter within the next fifteen years that I can put in my mouth like a retainer that will block any untoward words that can potentially spurt out. My mouth is a terror now; I can’t imagine what I’ll be like at eighty-three with a “who gives a shit” attitude about life.
- What I noticed at the AL center: Old people say and do the darndest things. As I passed by one old codger sitting in a wheelchair, I greeted him with an enthusiasm I didn’t feel, and he greeted me with a misplaced gusto that had nothing to do with me or that circumstance: “Kick her in the ass, Mabel — kick her good and hard!” And then he broke into a 1910 song by Friedman and Whitson: “Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you….” (Apparently, he does this routine with all the ladies.) Then when I turned the corner down a random hallway and began to pass a Fred Astaire look-alike, he gave me the sweetest smile as he tipped his hat and loudly announced: “FIRE IN THE HOLE! Best dive for cover,” as a sewer-like odor enveloped my nostrils and almost caused me to faint. (On the other hand, maybe it would be liberating to be as free as the Fred Astaire dude who didn’t break his gait as he waltzed on down the hallway. He simply dropped a malodorous bomb like “Pepé Le Pew” and whistled a happy tune as if he didn’t have a care in the world.)
I vow to be a gourmet diner until the day I die. Good food and wine are gifts from God. I should know since I grew up eating government cheese and powdered eggs. I think I’ll start a national club for assisted living/nursing home residents while I’m mentally astute: “The Amuse Bouche Club.” The campaign slogan will be: “Amuse my palette, you SOB’s – just because I’m old doesn’t mean my taste buds are dead”!
- What I noticed at the AL center: The food in the center had been stripped of all taste. They used no salt, no seasonings, no oil, and no imagination (as if getting old meant losing one’s ability to enjoy food as art or letting go of all culinary creativity), causing the reigning food question from the residents to be: “what the hell is this?” Most of the people put up with it, but a small contingent led by my mentor were beginning to mutiny.
I vow to travel until the day I die. However, I realize that my kids may die before me (heaven forbid!) and won’t be able to do what I did for my mentor, so I’m thinking about starting a National Service Plan as part of the Social Security Program: Travel made easy/a government project. I’ll fight to close corporate tax loopholes and propose that part of those taxes be used to provide one week per year of free corporate jet travel (with door-to-door limo service) for all AL center and nursing home residents to any destination of their choice. (For those who think this is socialism, your grandma can opt out.) In fact, I think I’ll name my governmental projects after those two outstanding champions of the poor and vulnerable: “ARRFH — Ayn Rand Repents from Hell” and “GBFLHS — Glenn Beck Finally Learns How to Share.”
- What I noticed at the AL center: Once one is no longer able to drive or navigate public or group transportation, one is pretty much confined to the square footage of AL facilities unless family members step into the gap. If your family doesn’t give a shit or they are all deceased, you are screwed. I could have sworn I saw some of the same people in the same chairs at the same tables they were in the previous year. One old dude was asleep at the dining table when I entered and was still asleep in the same spot three hours later when I passed him.
I vow to kick to the curb any ideologies and individuals whose preconceived ideas and prejudices try to stifle my intellectual and spiritual growth (I vow to never stop being curious).
- What I noticed at the AL center: The people who stopped being curious about life or who were dogmatic and spiteful in their youth seemed to shrivel up and become mean-spirited and disengaged in their twilight years when they most needed to be patient, gracious, and loving in a group living situation with different races, genders, and religions. There is one old lady who comes to dinner every night, never speaks a word to her table mates, and reads a book all through dinner. When her table mates confronted her about her anti-social behavior, she simply said, “Oh?” and went back to reading her book. Ironically, she is not one of the members of my mentor’s book club.
I vow to become more and more like my mentor who seems to be grace personified in old age and whose service to the foster kids she helped, as well as the ailing peers she serves, makes us want to give back to her in any way we can so that her “third act” ends gracefully and with dignity.
I’m discovering as I lie writhing in pain from my first Zumba exercise yesterday, I can say anything I want, but when and how I age is completely out of my control. I mean I can exercise more, eat better, floss more diligently, but there is all sorts of shit out there that can bring you down before you even know it. Maybe our declining years don’t have as much to do with our individual needs, as it does with the community connected to us. Maybe it is God’s way of saying, if I didn’t make you vulnerable in some part of your lives, you wouldn’t need each other; it is in the serving of the needy that one sees the face of God (“. . .what you do for the least of them, you do for me,” Jesus said). It’s been a week and I’m discovering that kidnapping my mentor, taking her on a vacation — something she thought she’d never do again — was an act of service that did as much for me as it did for her. I did see the face of God in her (love, patience, peace, grace, kindness), and she saw that her time and energy had not been wasted on me.
“In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of
disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.” Edith Wharton US novelist (1862 – 1937)
All text and photos by Eleanor and John Tomczyk © 2011
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