Saturday, October 12, 2013

Aging Happens...

Mom at 91
 
Now that I am seventy-one, it is interesting to look back at the
perspectives on aging I held when I was forty-two. This column
was written for publication on January 19, 1984, about two weeks
after my forty-second birthday. How young I was then; and yet,
many of my views have not changed...quite amazing.

The little blond girl hugged her mommy tightly around the neck "Mommy,"
she whispered, "I want to be a midget." Tears began to run down her cheeks
and her voice quivered as she continued. "That way I won't ever have to
grow up and get old."
 
This recollection of my first awareness of the fear of getting old occurred
when I was barely four years old, living in a heavily ethnic community
which had a cross section of ages and cultures, and in which aging and
death were part of everyday life. Even at that tender age, I had become
aware that the end of life seemed to follow a period of old age, and I was
determined to remain small so that I would not have to endure the
difficulties of old age and subsequent death.
 
How strange to look back upon that experience and to recall the very
real fear I was experiencing as a small child. Being old was, in reality,
far away in terms of chronological years, and yet somehow even then I
sensed that much of what happened to and "old" person was not something
I desired to experience for myself.
 
These memories came flooding back to me as I sat in church last Sunday,
listening to the guest pastor speaking about aging from his perspective
as a professional person who works fulltime with the aging in our society.
"We spend the first third of our lives preparing for the second third," he
stated, "but we seldom spend any part of the second third preparing
for the last third." His words struck a tender spot with me.
 
Slowly, slowly the realization began to dawn that the speaker was indeed
correct in his assessment of our society. We place such a heavy emphasis
on youth- remaining youthful and young-looking, keeping "in shape"
(whatever that means), and preparing for a successful career, that we
give little or no thought to the years beyond retirement. And if statistical
projections are correct, many of us who are now 45 or below have an
excellent chance of living to be one-hundred. This means a full thirty-five
years of living after retirement from one's life occupation, thirty-five
years of time to do- what?
 
Several years ago a very special book of poetry about aging was written
by Elise Maclay. Entitled Green Winter, this little book was brought
to my attention by a sensitive and caring friend who was also touched
by the words of the visiting pastor. And because I feel that these poems
speak so deeply and so well about some of the fears and problems of
aging, because they put into words far better than I ever could some of
the realities of being "old", I am sharing just a few of them with you.
Perhaps they will cause you to regard older people with more care and
love and respect; perhaps they will cause you to begin caring about
your own aging process, about your own future "old-ness".

      I Hate the Way I Look
I mind being wrinkled
   and stooped and shaky
   and gray.
When I look in the mirror
   I feel betrayed. As if a
   dear friend had turned
   into an ugly beast.
But that's unfair.
My body is still my
   friend.
It struggles valiantly to
   do my bidding.
I should be kinder to it.
The years have been
   pelting it and I haven't
   helped much.
I eat too much, drink too
   much, get angry too
   much, overwork.
Actually, my body has
   forgiven me a lot.
I should be more
   charitable to it now.
When young people look
   away in distaste, I
   should say: Never mind,
   old friend-body, they
   don't know all you've
   been through.
When they're old one
   day, too, I hope they
   take it as well as you.

In the Way
I feel I'm in the way.
Nonsense, I am in the way,
Though the family tells
   me I'm not.
No sense priding myself
   in not making demands.
They have to help me
   dress, bathe, follow the
   conversation.
They have to take me to
   the doctor.
They can't leave me
   alone without worrying.
And they have to look at
   me and see, beyond the
   ugliness of my wrinkled
   face and wavering
   hands, the specter of
   their own deterioration.
The young people, of course,
   don't believe they will
   ever be old.
But I am often an
   embarrassment to them.
They try to remember
   the way I used to be and
   pay homage to that.
They don't know that I
   am here, imprisoned in
   old age, trying to make
   contact with the world.
What can I do, Lord?
   What should I do?
I love them and long to
   communicate with them
   and cannot bear to be
   in the way.
Is there something You
   can teach them through
   me?
Is there something You
   want me to learn?
Help me, Lord, to understand
   why I am still here.

Don't Let Me Lose My Sense of Humor
It seems to me I used to
   laugh more.
Was the world funnier
   in those days? Of course not.
   It was the same mixture of
   darkness and light, sadness
   and silliness, doom and delight,
   then as now, and I used to
   get a lot of laughs out of it.
Things haven't changed
   as much as I have. In fact,
   now that I stop to think
   about it, a lot of the things
   that annoy me nowadays
   are the same things that
   used to tickle my funnybone.
Do you heal funnybones, God?
Of course you do.
And the idea makes me
   smile.

(How very interesting to me that in the past ten years, so
much of the poetry I've written has been about the journey
of aging. Perhaps it takes actually being an elder to be able
to reflect honestly about what aging really means. And for
a wonderful book on aging, I recommend The Gift of Years
by Joan Chittister.)

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