Memory and Habit

It seems as if I spent an inordinate amount of time looking for things, not just photos (as I mentioned yesterday), but physical items. The latest thing I’ve been searching for is a wrought iron hook for hanging plants that had been attached to the ramp when I moved here. I took it off when I painted the ramp and then forgot all about it. I found it again last year when I was putting things away in my new garage, and I placed it . . . somewhere. I remember putting it where I would intuitively look for it, but it has disappeared, so either my intuition isn’t working, I accidentally threw it away, or it’s in hiding. It’s not a major issue except for the time I spent looking for it because I’m probably going to order a new one to match the two I put up last year. And anyway, the time I spent looking wasn’t really wasted because as I looked, I was able to rearrange and clean the part of the garage where my contractor had stored supplies, unused building materials, and some of the tools he’d been using.

But it irritates me all the same. I used to pride myself on my memory, but episodes like this tell me it’s no longer a source of pride. I’m just grateful I can still remember most of what I want to remember!

It’s also frustrating to misplace small things like that hook because in recent years I’ve gotten in the habit of putting things away in the same place I got them from so that they are always where I can find them. Before that, I wasn’t particularly careful — messes didn’t bother me, and if they did, I’d simply immerse myself in reading and voila! No mess. It’s sort of like that old conundrum: “if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear, does it make a sound?” In my case, though, it was more a matter of “if your house is messy and you don’t see it, is it really messy?”

I shouldn’t feel too badly about the hook; after all, it wasn’t something I used and then didn’t put back in the right place. There was no right place. It was a one-time deal.

It is a reminder, though, that when one’s memory doesn’t work as well as it once did, then habit becomes especially important.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Rebooting Ourselves

I had a bit of a problem yesterday with one of the programs on my computer, so before I got worked up about it, I restarted the computer. And as I hoped, the problem was resolved.

Which got me to thinking — what would it be life if we could reboot ourselves when things go wrong? Not to do a factory reset — I mean, I for one, wouldn’t want to have to start my life over as a baby. It’s taken me decades to get to the point where I am now. A full factory reset would force me to live all those years over again, and the very idea seems unutterably horrific. But to be able to reset what isn’t working right while keeping memories and experience intact? To get back to where we older folk can walk effortlessly without having to place each foot solidly on the ground before moving forward? To get our cells back to replicating exactly without all the little “mistakes” that add up to aging?

And then think about the other “programs” we could use, such as virus protection and virus removal. Add to that any supplemental “hardware” such as more memory.

The idea is staggering.

Alas, although our bodies seem to work like computers at times, we don’t have the capability they have for self-repair. (Though for the most part, our immune systems do a good job, at least until they are overwhelmed by age or other detrimental factors.)

On the other hand, computers don’t have the capacity for enjoyment and beauty and feelings that we have. At least not yet.

I might not be able to reboot myself (except in the winter when I have to reboot myself to go back outside to finish shoveling snow or something like that), but there are offsetting factors like . . . well, like tulips!

Although winter temperatures returned, with lows in the twenties (Fahrenheit), a few tulips managed to bloom anyway, bringing a dollop of color to an otherwise murky morning.

That for sure is worth something.

***

What if God decided S/He didn’t like how the world turned out, and turned it over to a development company from the planet Xerxes for re-creation? Would you survive? Could you survive?

A fun book for not-so-fun times.

Click here to buy Bob, The Right Hand of God.

Fountain of Youth

I’m reading a book about a group of scientists who discovered the so-called fountain of youth. I say “so-called” because it wasn’t a fountain, it was an injection of a substance that prevented telomeres from malfunctioning or wearing out. From what I understand, telomeres are a compound structure at the end of chromosomes that keep the long strands of DNA from getting tangled during cell replication. When they malfunction, you get cancer. When they wear down, you grow old. Apparently, if there is a way to keep telomeres at peak performance, you won’t get cancer, won’t grow older, won’t get any of the diseases of old age. You wouldn’t be immortal, of course, since you could die from any number of other causes, such as car accidents or non-DNA-related diseases. And I suppose you’d have to be especially careful of yourself to keep from being like the women in the movie Death Becomes Her.

Although it was an interesting premise, the story breaks down because the only way this group of exceedingly smart “immortals” thought of to keep their eternal youthfulness from being discovered is to find younger doppelgangers every twenty years or so, kill them off, and take over their identity. Ignoring the immorality and illegality of such a drastic solution, there would be myriad problems, such as fingerprints not matching. (I almost didn’t get my driver’s license renewed because my thumbprints didn’t match. They finally figured out that the previous thumbprint was printed at the tip rather than the meat of the thumb like the current print.)

It reminded me of a novel I once planned to write. I’d have to check my notes to find out why this particular character didn’t age (I think it had to do with a project they were working on that killed everyone else in the lab and left her unable to get older), but I do remember the first scene. She’s in a stall in a restroom while people she knows are primping at the mirror and talking about her, something to the effect of, “Who is she trying to kid? All that makeup she wears doesn’t fool me. She’s nowhere near as young as she pretends to be.” The character in the stall realizes it’s time to move on because the truth is she is trying to hide her age. The heavy make-up is to make her look older rather than younger.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Mostly I’m wondering if such a serum were available, would you take it? Would you want to be eternally young? To live forever, or as forever as possible?

I wouldn’t, though to be honest, I wouldn’t mind finding a true fountain of youth. I wouldn’t drink the water, though I might bathe my cheeks to plump them up (I don’t mind my wrinkles, but the crepey skin on my cheeks is sort of creeping me out.) And I’d like to bathe my legs in the water to keep them young, but for the rest of it, not so much.

In a way, I’m viewing the experience of aging the same way I now view grief. Although grief was utterly painful and angst-ridden while it had me in its grip, I’m glad I had the experience. It was way beyond anything I could have ever imagined, way beyond anything I’d ever read about. I tend to think aging is the same. As long as a self-aware person retains her ability to think and can process what she is thinking and feeling, it could be (and is) interesting to see some of the changes — not just physically but mentally and emotionally.

Besides, I think eternity could be utterly boring. I mean, what do you do with eternity? It’s the same thing I’ve wondered about when it comes to after-death eternity, though with pre-death eternity, at least you have a body to do things with, emotions to experience, things to see and hear and taste, but after a while, all things pall.

Even more than that, either you stay away from people entirely and miss out on the joy of love and friendships, or you remain alive while everyone you know and will ever know ends up dead. All that grief would be too much to handle, and if it isn’t, if one can lose and keep on losing without ever being affected, would life be worth living?

I guess I’m lucky in that I won’t ever have to make this choice, though in a certain sense, I make it every day because every day I do something to try to improve my life, my body, my mind. As far as I know, that’s all anyone can do without having access to a fountain of youth.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

What It’s All About

Today is the eleventh anniversary of Jeff’s death, and as with everything to do with grief, I am feeling a bit bewildered. None of it makes sense to me. Was I really that woman? That woman who watched a man slowly die, who wanted the suffering to end, yet whose love was so ineffectual she couldn’t make him well or take away a single moment of his pain? That woman so connected to another human being she still felt broken years after his death? That woman who screamed the pain of her loss to the winds?

I’ve always considered myself a passionless woman, so how could that woman be me? I’m mostly living in a state of relative equilibrium at the moment, feeling more like myself than I have at any time since his death, which makes that bone deep grief I lived with for so long seem even more unreal. Sometimes looking back, it almost seems as if all that emotion was an effort to make myself seem important, and yet I know it was real. It came from a part of me I didn’t even know existed. It makes me wonder if maybe that’s what changed over the years — not that I became more used to Jeff being gone, or that time healed my grief, but that the part of me that surfaced after he died has simply sunk back into the muck from which it rose.

Making the situation even more unreal, I can barely remember what he looked like — I do not think in images, so it’s understandable (though distressing) that I have no clear image of him in my mind. Even worse, I don’t have a photo that matches what I remember of him. (The only photo I have was taken about twelve years before he died.) And so the image of him in my mind now is the image in that photo. I remember the first time I looked at the picture after he was gone — I was shocked that it no longer looked like him. I put the photo away, not wanting that false image to be the only picture of him in my head, but when I moved here, I put his photo on the bedside table, finding comfort in that now familiar image. Does it matter if it didn’t look like him at the end? When I was going through his effects and found a picture of him around the time we met, I didn’t recognize that image of him either. And yet, they were both good images of him at those times. So what difference does it make how I picture him? He was all those men, and none of them.

Nor do I have a clear sense of time. Sometimes it feels as if he died just a couple of months ago. Sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago. The demarcation between our shared life and my solitary life was once so stark it was like the edge of a cliff. All I could see was the past and what I had lost. The living I have done in the past eleven years has blurred that edge almost to the point of nonexistence, adding to the sense of unreality.

I didn’t really expect to grieve for him today, and I didn’t, though the day isn’t yet over, so there’s a chance a bout of sadness will visit me tonight as I prepare for sleep. What I did today is what I have done every day since he died — lived the best I know how, finding joy in simple things, finding life in novel experiences. He was so sick at the end, it seemed as by dying he set us both free — he from pain, me from a lifetime of servitude to his illness — and I have been careful not to waste that gift.

Today’s simple joy was the blossoming of the Glory of the Snow bulbs I planted last fall.

And the novel experience was getting to drive a baby John Deere. The worker who is laying rock around my house drove here in the tractor to make it easier to transport the rock from one side of the yard to another, and to my delight, he let me drive the thing up and down the street, and even showed me how scoop up the rocks.

Those two things in particular add to my bewilderment today about life and death and grief. If Jeff were still alive, I wouldn’t have had those treats. In fact, if he were alive, I would be someone else, more like the person I was eleven years ago rather than the person grief shaped me into.

Then I have to add in the aging factor to the bewilderment. He will always be the age he was when he died, and I am getting ever older. Sometimes I feel the injustice of it all — we were supposed to grow old together, and because of our healthful lifestyle, we were supposed to beat the odds and be vital to the end. And yet, he’s gone and I am trying to pick my way through the minefield of growing old by myself. I am glad he won’t have to deal with that. I’m also glad he didn’t have to deal with the angst of surviving the death of a life mate, though what do I know. It’s entirely possible, if the dead have any sort of consciousness, that they grieve for us as much as we grieve for them.

But what all this comes down to is that it’s been eleven years since he died, and I don’t have any clearer idea now of what it’s all about than I did back then.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Letting Life Do What It Wills

Perhaps, as some people have suggested, I think about getting old too much, but when one is alone, there won’t be anyone to help when the time comes, so it’s important that I think about these things and make plans when I can. It’s not that I am specifically preparing for old age, but anything I have to do the house, I make sure it will accommodate me if I develop problems.

I’m not the only one who, when changes have to be made, make those changes with age in mind. That these people are generally widows or widowers might have something to do with it, perhaps because we know how life can change in an instant. I haven’t broached this subject enough to know the truth of it, but those I know who are still mated don’t think about these things as much as we who are alone.

My preparations started back when I was healing from a devastating arm/elbow injury. The surgeon told me there was nothing I could do to hurt the arm but that others could, so he cautioned about letting people get hold of my hand or arm. And he told me, flat out, “Don’t fall.” To that end, I removed any loose throw rugs, which are some of the most common fall hazards, and I made sure that my shower has hand rails since bathing and showering are dangerous not only to older folks, but to anyone.

It’s not that I’m paranoid; I’m simply aware of fall hazards. Besides, it’s so much easier to remain healthy if one remains upright. Too many older people begin a downward spiral after a fall.

The workers who come (occasionally, anyway) to help fix up my house and yard understand my wariness because they have elderly mothers with mobility issues. In fact, the fellow who came today brought his mother’s wheeled walker to make sure the paths we (I say “we” as if I am doing part of the work, though I am merely the check writer) are putting in are wide enough for walker use. To be honest, I don’t intend ever to have to use a walker, but neither did anyone who now needs one. It’s just that if I am going through all the trouble and expense of making my yard not just attractive but safe, I might as well look to the future and do the job once rather than finding out in decrepit old age that the paths are too narrow to do me any good.

The walkers with a seat are really great; I wish my father had consented to use one. He did walk inside the house, but he refused to walk outside. He said he got too tired. But if he had used a walker, he could have gone for a pleasant walk and then rested before he returned home.

Again, it’s not that I am planning on being decrepit; in fact, I am doing whatever I can to ensure that I’m won’t be, but life has a way of turning out vastly different from what we planned. By doing this work now, I can forget about it and let life do what it wills.

Of course, I reserve the right to whine if my life turns out to be something other than what I might wish for.

***

What if God decided S/He didn’t like how the world turned out, and turned it over to a development company from the planet Xerxes for re-creation? Would you survive? Could you survive?

A fun book for not-so-fun times.

Click here to buy Bob, The Right Hand of God.

Preventing Frailty

When a worker was here last week to fix the cracks in my foundation, we talked about some of the improvements I want to do outside the house, such as the pathways I want to put in, so that I can be safer in my old age. He commented that I spend too much time thinking about getting older, which might be true, but on the other hand, if I don’t work now to provide a safer “fourth age,” who will? (Old age has now been divided into two categories — the third age from 65 to 80, which used to be called the golden years, and the fourth age, which is from 80 on.) Admittedly, I am still years away from that fourth age, but what I do now will give me the best chance of a) living to that age, and b) living strongly once I have arrived.

I do worry about frailty — I see so many older people who are too frail to navigate under their own power, and I don’t want that for me. Well, no one does wants that for themselves, but since I have no younger family members to take care of me, I have to be particularly careful. I’m also willing (more or less) to do what it takes to keep frailty at bay for as long as possible. To that end, I’ve been researching how to keep from getting frail as I get older, and most of it I already know. Keep moving, for one, such as taking walks and stretching. Do resistance exercises to help build up muscle mass. Eat more protein. Avoid dieting since weight loss leads to more muscle loss than fat loss. And oh, yes, kick the sedentary habit.

It’s that last part that has me flummoxed. I do understand that we as a society are too sedentary, and to be honest, some of my most prevalent activities are sedentary ones, primarily reading books and playing around on the computer. But the suggestion is to do no more than three hours per day of such activities.

Huh? We’re talking about people in the third and fourth age here. What are we supposed to do for all the rest of the time? Let’s say we get eight hours of sleep a night, perhaps another hour for grooming tasks. Perhaps an hour or two for fixing meals and doing chores. Maybe, if we’re being generous with our estimates (or maybe if we’re outright lying), we exercise for an hour.

That adds up to twelve hours. And only three should be sedentary? Heck, if we in the third age could be up and around, doing all sorts of on-foot activities for nine hours, we’d be — oh, I don’t know — still working perhaps. Where are we supposed to get the strength for all that activity? Following the rest of the suggestions — exercise, more protein, etc — can only give a newly elderly person so much energy. All those years we are carrying around are heavy, which adds to desire for sedentariness.

Come to think of it, maybe that worker is right. Maybe I’m overthinking all this. Maybe I should just do what I feel like, even it turns out to be way too much sitting.

***

What if God decided S/He didn’t like how the world turned out, and turned it over to a development company from the planet Xerxes for re-creation? Would you survive? Could you survive?

A fun book for not-so-fun times.

Click here to buy Bob, The Right Hand of God.

Becoming the Matriarch

Getting old is a weird thing. When you’re very young, the old seem to be a fixture; after all, you never saw them when they were young. As far as you know, they were always old. Oh, you do see photos, perhaps, but those photos seem to have little to do with the old folks in your life. All you really know is that you are young and they are old.

In fact, it often seems as if they were born old, as if old is what they were supposed to be, when the truth is, you were born young. Still, despite what we learn of history, whether our personal history or world history, it seems as if the world begins when we are born.

As time goes on, we do get a sense of the progression of life. We grow older, learn to walk and talk, and eventually we go to school. Sometimes we get younger brothers and sisters, and we are puffed up with our oldness. We try so hard to grow up, especially if we have an older sibling, because we want to be as old as they are. We want their privileges, such as they are. And then, the big birthday comes, and even though we are a year older, so is the sibling.

And so the years pass.

Then one day you wake to the realization that you are the old generation. In the back of your mind there’s still the image of the world you were born into, where you were young and the old were old. So how is it possible that the world has suddenly become inverted?

After Jeff died, I was afraid of growing old alone, but now I’ve gotten used to the idea, and although the thought of being old doesn’t worry me, being old and feeble does. Luckily, I have been able to bypass the feebleness for now (though with my wonky knees, sometimes I sense a less than active future).

I am confused, though. How can I be the matriarch of my family — the oldest living female? There are cousins somewhere who are older than I am, but for the most part, everyone who is older than me — parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, older brother — are all gone now.

And I am now that old woman who so mystified me when I was young.

To be honest, many of my youthful years seem to have disappeared, not just out of sight but out of mind, so perhaps the truth is what I once sensed about other elders — that I am a fixture; that I did in fact appear on this earth as an old woman. And there’s no one who was alive when I was born to tell me otherwise.

With any luck, I will continue to grow older, and if enough years pass, I will look back to this time as a relatively youthful one. The ninety-year old woman I sit with says I am just a kid, so perhaps I really am still relatively youthful.

But none of that mitigates the very real fact that I am not only the oldest living female in my family, I’m also the oldest of anyone, male or female.

Does this blog post have a purpose? None that I can see. It’s just that once I was so young that everyone in my family (and the world, too!) was older than I was. And now?

Maybe it’s best if I stop thinking about this.

***

What if God decided S/He didn’t like how the world turned out, and turned it over to a development company from the planet Xerxes for re-creation? Would you survive? Could you survive?

A fun book for not-so-fun times.

Click here to buy Bob, The Right Hand of God

Respecting My Years

I am rapidly approaching that “elderly” birthday, the one that can no longer be kindly categorized as late middle age. For the most part, I don’t notice a difference, but there are some interesting dichotomies. My memory is slowing down, especially when it comes to short-term memory, and I am a bit slower in thought, but on the other hand, I think that I think better, if that makes sense. I’m also a bit slower physically, some of which is due to age and some to my perception of age, by which I mean that I am respectful of my years and try to make accommodations, even if they aren’t strictly necessary.

For example, I have no trouble shoveling my sidewalks, and yet I won’t go walking in the snow unless I must, and if I do have to, I make sure to wear non-skid hiking shoes and use my dual trekking poles. I also make sure to carry my single hiking pole whenever I am out in the dark or in any other possibly adverse condition, though to simply take a walk on a good weather day, I leave it behind. (People call it my cane, which I object to because a cane seems such an elderly thing to carry, but I suppose technically it is a cane since I’m using it in the city to help with my balance as I navigate broken sidewalks and bumpy streets.)

Now that my knees are doing better, I could probably climb stairs without too much trouble but I am very careful when I’m on stairs, walking up or down like a very old-elderly woman instead of a young elderly one.

Knowing how easy it is to trip, I try to be aware of what I am doing, even when walking around the house. I pay particular attention to the sill between the kitchen and dining area; it’s the sort of thing old women tend to trip on, and after such a fall, too many of their lives are never the same.

Sometimes I worry that respecting my years and acting like an old woman will age me more rapidly, but I tend to think it’s better to err on the side of caution even if I move slower than I could. Of course, accidents happen to even cautious people, but I can’t worry about every little thing — otherwise I’d never do anything! But still, I am trying to respect my many years of living so I can be around to enjoy more of them.

***

What if God decided S/He didn’t like how the world turned out, and turned it over to a development company from the planet Xerxes for re-creation? Would you survive? Could you survive? Would you even want to?

Click here to buy Bob, The Right Hand of God