Apprenticeship

Sometimes I feel as if I am serving an alchemical apprenticeship as I continue my transformation into an old woman. You notice I said “old woman” rather than a “wise old woman,” because I’m not sure wisdom is something that can be apprenticed. Neither can old age, actually — we get there or we don’t — and yet there are things we can do to make aging easier.

My apprenticeship is about learning the art of living when it doesn’t seem as if life is worth living anymore. So many frail elders are beset by an existential crisis, especially when they are the last ones left of their family. (Or even if it only feels as if they are the last ones left.) It is a valid point — is life worth living when everyone you have loved has died? When you have little control over your life and yourself? When your body continually fails you? When it’s hard to see, hear, feel? When your days extent too far behind you and —even though you know you have an expiration date — seem to extend too far ahead? When all anyone cares about is how old you are, not about you and how you are dealing with your great age?

A vast old age (or even a frail younger old age) leaves elderly people feeling as if they have outlived their usefulness, as if there is nothing left to live for, as if they don’t belong here. I’m hoping, in this apprenticeship I have apparently taken on, that the lessons I learn now will become habit, so if (when?) I go through my own age-prompted existential crisis, the tools for continuing to live as full a life as possible will be at hand.

I have no idea what I will be feeling in those hopefully still-distant years. My experience with grief has taught me that we cannot imagine how we will feel about anything until we get there. I do look to the elderly people I know and have known in recent years, see how they are feeling and acting (or not acting), and try to extrapolate from them what I might need to know. One advantage I have is that existential crises are not uncommon for me, the big ones being when I hit adolescence, when allergies (and the prescribed allergy medication) tossed me into a black hole of depression, and when Jeff died. Too often, people sail along fine their entire life until they become physically incapacitated in some way, and then . . . wham! Along come all problems and thoughts that were held at bay by activity.

To this end, I celebrate the small beauties of the day — a flower, a pretty stone, a smile. I look for something to care about and to focus on — for now, it’s my yard, but when that becomes too much for me, I hope something else will come along to give my life focus. I look for something to be grateful about every day. Admittedly, it’s hard to think about one’s life here (especially if that life feels insignificant) when a person is focused on what comes next after this life. So along with the gratitude, I look for something to ground me, to connect me to life and to Earth. Right now, as with so much else, that grounding comes from my garden, from dealing with the literal ground rather than a mental one.

I am also paying attention to the ways my body works and doesn’t work to try to figure out what muscles I might need to exercise to make sure I can do for as long as possible the simple things we take for granted — stand, sit, walk, swallow. Yep, swallow. About a month ago, I was downing a vitamin when it slipped straight past my esophagus into my lungs. Yikes! Scared the heck out of me. So I researched the mechanisms of swallowing and learned that in order for the windpipe to be blocked off, it’s necessary to swallow with the tongue pressed onto the roof of the mouth. The only thing I can think of is that day I forgot how to swallow and relaxed my tongue and throat, and then . . . oops. I’m very lucky that it wasn’t worse. The pill (a capsule) was innocuous and eventually, it dissolved with no lasting effects. Now I am mindful of where my tongue is when I swallow anything. And if I don’t feel like taking the vitamins, I don’t. Even though I do feel as if they are helping me, they can’t help if I can’t swallow them.

It’s all part of the apprenticeship. There is no grade to this apprenticeship, nor is there any reward except that I get to live another day. When I feel more as if I “have to” live rather than I “get to” live, I remind myself that today is not given to everyone, and I find a way to mark the occasion. I hope I can continue to do so. If nothing else, having such a tool at my disposal will help make all the coming years worth living.

***

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.

Feeling Old

I had a rather cryptic e-conversation with a therapist friend who recently attended a grief workshop. She mentioned that they stressed things I’ve written about but aren’t commonly known, such as there being no way to do grief wrong (it might be painful, but it isn’t wrong). She said I was ahead, and that this wasn’t the first time.

I responded, “It’s nice to know. But then, I already knew.”

She came back with, “Yes, you did. And I am sorry you had to learn.”

I was about to agree that I was also sorry that I had to learn about grief the hard way, then I realized how remote all those years of grief seem now, so I wrote back, “It’s funny, but it was so long ago, none of it seems to matter anymore, except, of course, for the part about Jeff being dead. That will always matter to me.”

She agreed, “Except, of course, about Jeff, that will always matter. I feel that about many things.” Then we come to the cryptic part. She ended by saying, “Maybe it is age, maybe perspective, but I am feeling many things not felt before.”

I’m not sure what she meant by that final sentence, but it got me thinking about the things I feel now that I have not felt before, and only one thing came to mind: I feel old. That’s sounds so terrible, but it really isn’t. I don’t feel old as in decrepit or sick or helpless, but old as in a different era of my life.

When we were young, the old seemed separate from us, as if they’d never been like us, as if they’d always been old. Most of us were smart enough to know that wasn’t true, but since we’d never seen the elderly when they were young, it seemed true. The other side of that feeling is that we never really thought we ourselves would cross that line from youth to old age. Most young people feel they are different from the elderly, that they will be the exception and will remain forever young. Well, I certainly wasn’t the exception, and now the line has been crossed and I am on the side of the elderly.

Oddly, just as I’d imagined the elderly when I was young, as if they’d always been old, that’s how I feel. As if I’ve always been old. My youth is now as distant and as unimaginable as old age once was. That girl I was, that young woman, that half of a couple, that griever are all lost in the past and no longer seem to have anything to do with the woman I am today.

I don’t think this feeling is a bad thing since it is what it is. It doesn’t feel negative, anyway. It’s just an acknowledgement of a different time of life. The whole maiden, mother, crone trilogy, perhaps. My mother stage sort of came first because as the oldest girl of a rather large family, I so often had to take care of the younger kids. My crone stage came in having to shepherd Jeff and my parents out of this world — a midwife to the dying, so to speak. What’s left is the maiden stage, and that’s not happening. Though in a way, it is. Buying my first house so late in life, starting over in a new place. Just . . . starting. That is all part of the maiden era.

People often talk as if the elderly are simply youngsters in a decaying body, and that might be true for some people, but that isn’t true for me. Despite my facetiousness about going through my “maiden era,” I don’t feel the child in me struggling to escape the burden of age. I feel ageless, or perhaps I feel more as if being my age — the age I am right now —is the right age. And so it was during all the “right now”s of my life. (Meaning that whatever age I was, that was the right age for me at that time.)

The bad part of being old is that the body is wearing down and wearing out. Weird little things happen, such as rolling over in bed and suddenly the knee is out of whack and you can’t walk or your trusty immune system doesn’t work as well or things slide down the wrong tube when swallowing. But even these matters don’t seem so much a part of growing old as of . . . entropy, perhaps.

I might change my mind about all this as I slip from a young elderly age into an older elderly age, but whatever happens, I hope I can continue to see the aging process as just another phase of the adventure we call life. After all, that’s how I tried to deal with grief: accepting it as much as possible as another experience — a rather painful experience (to put it mildly) but no less valid than the pleasant times.

Just as our culture seems to frown on people who admit to feeling grief, as if grief is failing, it seems to frown on people who admit to feeling old, as if that too is a failing. But I didn’t hesitate to admit to feeling sad, so I certainly am not going to hesitate to admit I feel old. It’s just the way life is. And it’s just the way I am.

***

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.

Age Is Not Just a Number

Numbers are important in our lives. Or at least, we’ve made them important. Today seems a significant day, a rare Twosday — not only is it a day of twos (2/22/22), but it’s also Tuesday.

Dates are important to us; if nothing else, the numbers on the calendar make it easier for us to navigate our complicated lives. More than that, we give some numbers on the calendar a special significance. For example, we make a big deal about New Year’s Day (1/1) even though it has no real significance other than a change of calendars. In fact, the new year in other cultures starts on a different day.

Temperature numbers are especially significant to us. This morning when I got up, it was 7 degrees. I don’t really need the number to tell me that it is cold — a brief step outside would fulfill the same function — but somehow, knowing the number makes it official.

And yet, when it comes to age, especially an elder age, any concern a person might have about growing older is met with a dismissive, “Age is just a number.”

Age is not just a number. It tells us the time on our biological clock. We only hear about “biological clocks” when it comes to childless women nearing the end of their reproductive years, and yet time is ticking for all of us. We might not know the end, but we do know the end is coming, and the older we are, the more the end looms.

A friend who was about to turn seventy was really freaking out about her age, and she was embarrassed about her reaction to the birthday, but to me, her reaction was totally understandable and nothing to be embarrassed about. In fact, seventy is a significant birthday and worth freaking out over.

All through their sixties, people can convince themselves they are still middle-aged — late middle age, perhaps, but still solidly in the middle years. Then comes seventy, and any pretense of still being young are gone. Especially now, with the pandemic and all, seventy-year-olds are stigmatized as “elderly.” True, they are elderly, but not as eld as they will become. That dang clock is clicking louder and louder as it counts down the last years of life. Oh, sure, they might still have two or even three decades left, but changes will be coming more rapidly.

There is not a significant physical change between the ages of forty and fifty. Nor between fifty and sixty. Or even sixty and seventy. But there is a huge difference between seventy (with the blush of middle age still on one’s cheeks) and eighty (which by anyone’s definition — except perhaps an eighty-year-old’s — really is old). An informal poll tells me that seventy-five is when most people notice a substantial change, but still, at seventy, there are signs of decrepitude. Mentally, people may feel the same, but physically, by seventy, most people are slowing down. Joints hurt. Doctor visits are more frequent. Medications aren’t just a quick cure but are a permanent fixture. The possibility of a frail old age, once unthinkable, becomes . . . thinkable.

When you’re young, old age is for other people. Youth is eternal. Until it’s not. And suddenly, there you are, wondering who the old person is looking back at you in the mirror.

It’s not really a surprise, then, that people want to believe that age is just a number. To think beyond the number is to accept truths that people might not want to accept. Still, when you’re at peace, when the aches and pains are momentarily absent, when the ticking clock silently recedes into the background of your mind, then you feel like . . . you.

When my sister was 35, she asked my mother, who was then in her seventies, how old she felt, and my mother said she thought of herself as thirty-five. My sister thought it wonderful that she and our mother were the same age. I don’t know how much longer after that my mother continued to think of herself as thirty-five. It’s not the sort of thing she and I ever talked about. But no matter how she felt, she did start having health issues, and she definitely showed her age. Then, a few years later, after my brother died, she suddenly grew old and ill and died within the year.

So, yes. Age is just a number, and yet it’s not.

***

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.

Standing Tearfully on the Cusp of . . .

My fourth book, Light Bringer, is going to be released later this month. I thought this would be an auspicious time, a time of endings and new beginnings. March is the two-year anniversary of my being published, it’s the anniversary of my birth, and it’s the first anniversary of my soul mate’s death. What I didn’t take into consideration is how emotional this month would be. I mean, I’ve had almost a year to get used to his death. I should be over it by now, right? Apparently not.

After his death, I told myself, “If you can just get through the first month, you’ll be fine.” I wasn’t. So then I told myself, “After the third month, you’ll be fine.” The months passed, and I still grieved, so I told myself, “After six months . . .” And, “after a year.” I’m nearing that first anniversary, but I don’t seem to be completely shedding my grief. Grief follows its own time. It will not, cannot be rushed. Even worse, I seem to be keyed into this same month last year — the final month of his life — and I feel as if I’m counting down to his death . . . again. The big difference is that last year I did not give in to emotion — at least not much and not until the end. His care was all that mattered. Well, I’m feeling now what I didn’t feel then. And just like last year, nothing I do can make him well.

This will be my first birthday without him, and oddly, it saddens me. We didn’t celebrate our birthdays. Sometimes we acknowledged them, sometimes we didn’t, but they were no big deal, just a change of numbers, so I’ve been wondering why this birthday troubles me, and tonight I figured it out. This is one of one of the big 0 birthdays, the one where you can no longer fool yourself into thinking you are still young (even the actuarial tables acknowledge this one as a major change). And here’s the kicker: my mate and I will not be growing old together. There will be no walking hand-in-hand in our twilight years, no reminiscing about our youth, no helping each other overcome the infirmities of age. “The end” has been written on our love story.

If that weren’t enough trauma for one month, Light Bringer is his memorial — his funeral service, obituary, epitaph — all rolled into one. Perhaps I shouldn’t imbue the book with such significance, but it is the culmination of two lifetimes of study — his and mine. It’s the last book he helped me edit, the last one I read to him from beginning to end. Once the book has been launched, it no longer belongs to us — to him and me. It belongs to anyone who reads it. And so one more piece of him will be gone from my life.

I’d hoped to be able to give the book a good send-off, but it’s hard to think of fun, innovative ways to promote when I’m constantly reminded that he won’t be here to help me celebrate. And it is something to celebrate. (Heck, I’m even going to celebrate my birthday!) So, here I am, at the beginning of this auspicious month, standing tearfully on the cusp of . . . what? I don’t know.

Is Twenty-Five Weeks a Long Time or a Little Time?

Is twenty-five weeks a long time or a little time? I haven’t a clue. All I know is that twenty-five weeks ago my life mate — my soul mate — died of inoperable kidney cancer, and I am still learning to deal with his absence. Sometimes it seems as if he’s been gone forever, and other times it feels as if he just left, as if I should be able to reach out, hold him in my arms, and keep him safe. Strange, that — I couldn’t stop his dying when he was living it. I certainly can’t stop it now that he is gone.

When I was a child, twenty-five weeks seemed a lifetime, especially if I was counting down to Christmas or summer vacation. When the weight of age began settling on my shoulders, twenty-five weeks went by in a flash. Or at least they used to. Now weeks stop and go, dam and flow, and I no longer have a concept of time, perhaps because the passing weeks are not relative to anything but his death and my loss.

Even the future seems long and short by turns. I think of growing old by myself, of learning to live with the limitations aging will bring, and ultimately of dying alone, and the coming years seem long. Yet those same years will still be full of life, maybe even happiness, which will make them feel short.

I do know that twenty-five weeks is a long time when it comes to feeling lost, alone, and confused by this major change — both his and mine. (I am very confused by his death. I worry about him still, feel sad for what he is missing, glad he is beyond pain.) At the same time, twenty-five weeks is way too short to even begin to process all that this experience means and will mean.

So, is twenty-five weeks a long time or a little time? I haven’t a clue.