Old age takes small, deliberate steps, aided by limbs and digits. Trying, at sixty-nine, to bring my aging into focus, I hit a wall. I have been writing and thinking about aging for over a decade. I have read books and written one, and gone to lectures. What in life is more important than “doing” this last phase richly and right? But what is the “doing?” It’s not like these subjects – aging, dying, death – were on offer at the family dinner table, or encouraged at Lake Erie College for Women in Painesville, Ohio. Regarding the latter, quite the contrary. It was 1966, and high tea was still served in the Blue Room, where we – the wives and mothers in training – would gather, formally garbed and gloved, learning the arts of Mingle, Small Talk and Self Effacement.
So I watch, staring; I watch the delicate, old woman having tea in my neighborhood coffee shop, sitting at a small, window table. Lifting pastry to lips, she chews slowly. All of her movements are slow, each function addressed with keen attention – lift, chew, swallow – and each followed by a pause, a recovery, a restoration.
Finished, she rises and walks across the table-littered room, without an aid, but cautiously. Her eyes pull her forward. She deposits her empty plate and cup into the tub, glancing up at the bulletin board that signals with its clutter of informational debris.
Arms raised, she returns to the table; her hands reach into space. Who is she? Where will she go, now? To the small, neighborhood grocery store down the block? To a car? This seems unlikely.
When in her eighties, my grandmother collapsed into the losses and vicissitudes of her future. She sat weeping on her nubbly, ivory-colored couch, convinced she’d been abandoned, imprisoned in The Home, betrayed. Her daughter, Betty, my mum, flayed by Grammy’s paranoia, could only say, “I’m sorry, Mother, no,” as she begged repeatedly to live with us. There was no spare room to spare in our family home, but more importantly, my mother, foreseeing herself the beleaguered target of her mother’s disappointments, froze at the prospect, dread-filled.
Once I believed my grandmother to be Wise and Kind, and so was puzzled by her bitter noncompliance. Of course, I would come to see that she was exceptional at neither – just a person shaped by circumstances, imprisoned, as are we all, by the flaws she could neither articulate nor master. Once I loved her fiercely – her clever Easter baskets piled with Hershey Kisses and onion skin dyed eggs; her tawdry, albeit beautifully executed crafts; the astonishing plethora of Pennsylvania Dutch foods and extravagant holiday dinners, her occasional eruptions of “Scheisse!” were a dish found chipped, or a puff of dust discovered on the kitchen floor. She had an appetite for life, and from the physical realm, drank deeply.
But her last phase unfolded on the ivory-colored couch. In a beige frock with lace strained over the bodice, and only half zipped up in back, she dwelt in a space between specific losses, and the fear of dying.
If the final task in the life span is, as Erik Erikson believed, one of ego integration, then our culture would be well served to regard this final phase as an apex, an enrichment, and welcome the voices of those on this frontier. The elderly, celebrated as guides and sages, would call out, Here is news you can use. Gone would be the crippling belief that sustaining the efforts of our middle age constitutes “successful” aging. To perceive aging only as a dwindling and a decline misses the entirety – birth to the final wrap – and all is cheapened.
In his thirties, Gotama, the Buddha-to-be, suspicious that life inside his princely, palace walls was too much like an endless party in the Suite of Denial, asked his chauffeur to take him for a ride. Evidentially, he had never been outside the palace walls before this. Sprung, Gotama encountered human suffering for the first time – the trajectory of birth, old age, sickness, death. These were a shock to his conditioning and insularity, and he could not return unchanged to his cush, albeit unbearably false, life.
Old age, sickness, death – the tools of our awakening.
One day in early summer, Bee, our dog, fell ill, and because she had been living with a cancer diagnosis for two years, we feared that we were close to putting her down.
“We’re looking at her last days,” my wife said, as we waited in an exam room at the vet’s, our affects stricken.
But the dog revived, and months passed, and we reverted to having the dog back with us forever. Denial had weathered the scare, and the crisp reminder that Bee’s days are numbered began to fade. It’s autumn, now, two full years later, and once again, my old dog is doing well forever. I have retired my awareness that she is being taken out by her disease; that she is even now in transition from a lovely, uncomplicated consciousness sheltered in the body of a dog, to the next phase of her journey. How keep awareness trained on each present moment; how banish the pother of hope? What faith this requires, what practice.
Medieval Christians plied their faith by practicing the Ars Moriendi, two Latin texts from 1415-ish to 1450-ish, that offered protocols for a good death. These practices evolved as a mitigation against the horrors of the plague, and the subsequent social upheavals. Eleven woodcuts illustrate six chapters that render the battle between angels and devils for the soul. The first pair of illustrations shows the devil presenting one of the five temptations and its opposite virtue, or remedy, and so on through the remaining four. The final print shows the dying man, having overcome the barrage of temptations, ascending heaven-ward as the devils, baffled and chagrined, scatter back to hell.
With over one hundred editions, the Ars Moriendi had wide circulation throughout Europe. To die well was to resist the five temptations, and flip them – from faithlessness to faith, despair to hope, restlessness to patience, spiritual arrogance to humility, and from greed to generosity. Dying was a moral activity.
One day, I took a walk without the dog on the walk we take almost every day. The memory of her frequent pause on the parking strip outside Parson’s Park signaled to me her absence. It tugged at my heart, the sensation, that of a small weight hanging inside there, an apricot, maybe.
It stuck me that this walk without the dog was practice. I was practicing for when I would not walk with her again forever. Those terrible, resonant words in relation to my friend – no more again forever.
I practiced my walk without the dog, a heaviness, palpable. It was the weight of future sadness, for the time ahead when walking with Bee will exist in memory only. So I made it a walk without the dog to commemorate the things we see each day together.
I passed the overlook, a sweeping view of Puget Sound, spectacular in all weathers; behind me loomed a black, steel sculpture entitled, “Changing Form.” Our itinerary describes a giant square, and I turned left uphill on the second arm, past the Ribes, festooned in early spring with green-tinged, pendant flowers. Across the street, a row of towering poplars undulated in the wind.
On the third arm of our gigantic square, I turned left again toward the block of wide parking strips with two horse chestnut trees, their trunks as big around as an elephant’s middle. Last week, we stopped to chat with a woman in a winsome cap, squatting before a cavity at the base of one these trees. She was fashioning an entry way of twigs and bits of moss and crystal pendants. Looking up, she put a finger to her lips and whispered, “Fairies,” explaining that she was building a home for them. If we were lucky, she noted, they would feel safe enough to take up residence.
Eleven years of this. Imagine. Almost every day, five days a week. Eleven years.
There is a traffic app called, WAZE, who talks in an authoritative, lady librarian fashion, while retaining a great enthusiasm for the journey ahead. Designed to navigate car and driver through perilous, intransigent traffic, she seeks the least congested route. In Seattle, now, with thousands of people relocating every minute, WAZE has become as indispensable as toilet paper, and unimaginable to live without as tequila. However, WAZE has a way of teasing. For example, the tried and true route – the one way you have taken from A to B, so engrained in mind as to have obliterated even the possibility of an alternative – must be discarded, and so she will tell you to go left instead of the customary right, and several blocks north instead of south, where you need, eventually, to be headed. If you are rigid and literal, as I pride myself on being, and always in some snit about promptness, this can feel thoroughly upending. Disobey, however, at your peril. WAZE knows – always. You must give yourself over to her higher knowledge. WAZE has become, thus, a spiritual practice. I get into the car, type in my destination, buckle up, and surrender to WAZE. She will take me left and right, up hill and down, in entirely baffling and new directions. After an initial several moments of insisting on my way, enduring her stern corrections, I simply surrender, letting myself free fall into a trustful not-knowing. At some point, I shall arrive. If I’m a little late, so be it. Others also late will be, having encountered similar snags and frustrations. We are all in the traffic heap together. Why not treat it like church? In this surrender to WAZE, I find parallels and analogies. Bee in her final days. Resist. Wrestle at one’s peril. Adore. Surrender.
But in our perusal of aging, let us not discard absurdity and poignance.
Two old men, related by virtue of their offsprings’ marriage (one, the father of the wife of the other man’s son), both fragile with age and disease, are – unbeknownst to each other – sitting side by side, diminutive in large wing chairs, both there for a family gathering. Suddenly one, pitching forward, recognizes the other, and cries, “Bud, you’re still here? I thought you were dead. I thought this was your memorial!”
This is a cartoon moment.
Bud was, indeed, still with us.
My wife and I were at a wedding. It was a Saturday in June on a wonderful island in Puget Sound. The ceremony, performed outdoors beneath a festooned chuppah, had ended, and familial clods were dispersing toward drinks. The lawn, ‘though manicured, was full of bumps and divots, and fell like a picnic blanket among ovoid beds, planted with flowering trees and blooming perennials. My eyes fatigued with all the color. Cocktails floated by on trays. We partook, even as the sun herded us in clusters toward shade. Useless Bay glittered in the distance. A crackle in the loud speakers cleared to song and The Rolling Stones emerged – “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” It grew louder, and suddenly across the uneven lawn bumped an elderly woman in a wheel chair, the hem of her emerald-green gown flapping. Her companion, bent double with the effort to keep them both upright, pushed her in a ragged trajectory. With her cocktail gripped like a torch before her, she was pitched forward to behold the view. Out they lunged, toward Useless, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” the perfect caption.
I have heard voiced an objection to the use of the word, still by those who are persuaded that aging can be “done well.” Still is believed to set an expectation; behind still, collapse hovers:
I can still hike for hours; I can still schlepp forty pound bags of compost (I can not, without aid, that is); I can still walk without fear of falling, and the most desperate entreaty of all: I can still drive.
Initially, I was thrilled for the reframe: language re-commissioned encouraged such. But I find myself inclined to disagree.
I think about honoring my stills, knowing that my losses will begin to announce themselves more fiercely and pile up, like emptied mussel shells. That which I do now, that which adds richness and value will not always be. Can one rehearse for when still applies no longer? You do not catch the peony resisting petal drop, or the great blue heron conniving not to die. And Bee will soon be sprung from her wooly chassis.