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.