Ageing. Some things we are prepared for. The wrinkles we secretly hope lend distinction to our tired eyes and document the laughter at the edges of our mouth. The skin that sags a little now when we finally lose the weight we’ve always meant to lose, now when we have more patience and resolve but our muscles are less resilient and refuse to take up the slack. Still our body betrays us. I worry about the spots on my skin though my doctor says “what do you expect?” And now my eyes, always needing “corrective lenses” suddenly demand something more with their rapidly developing cataracts. Just when I thought I had eating under control and the habits of a lifetime reversed (small portions, avoiding the bad cholesterol, fats, sugars and caffeine), something else goes wrong. Nothing terribly wrong, just something. My body rebels against overuse. There are daily reminders of limitations on my abilities and resources in this most personal way.
Ageing. I like to think that my mind is the best it has ever been, though I know that is only true in some ways and not in others. I know that I am losing some of the sharpness, that my memory is fading, and that I often forget names and places. I’d like to believe that the tradeoff is that I am gaining vision. I feel able, mentally to move beyond, to go deeper, and to live more fully than ever before. Perhaps the lessons of the body are a necessary part of this new phase of mental and spiritual life. The temple integral to the teaching. I am learning to embrace the house I have lived in and struggled against for so long, trying to accept and seek healing.
But, with aging, also comes loss. With understanding myself, comes a need to understand beyond myself. The larger questions of why we are here and why we must suffer the inexorable pain of losing those we love. Sometimes the lessons converge. Last week, grief and loss invaded my life. I cannot move forward without willing myself to pause and breathe. My brother-in-law survived open heart surgery only to suffer a debilitating stroke. He is recovering slowly. This vibrant, brilliant man who embraces all of life with eager participation, engaging everyone in conversation, interested in everyone and everything he encounters, now struggles to speak the simplest words. This independent, free thinking, inventive, generous and cantankerous genius is now wholly dependent on others for his survival. Why are we here? What do we need to learn?
Last week, I learned that my friend and mentor, Judy has breast cancer. Thankfully, caught early and with a good prognosis. Still, painful, frightening and prevalent in our time. This cancer has struck like a serpent at so many women I care about regardless of age and though this friend is only slightly older than I am, this serpent struck without warning.
Last week, my beautiful, generous and delightful Betty died of a stroke after surgery. Though she was 84, she was spirited and lively, sparkling in her independence and joy. She came every morning to the café for toast, coffee and conversation with her friends. She welcomed me into the circle, into her home and into her life. Yes, 84 is a full life. But Betty was so full of life, so happy living her life and I was not prepared to let her go.
With Betty’s passing and especially with George, my brother-in-law’s, surgery and stroke, I think for the first time I am feeling the reality of my age. That it is not just me, but my friends, my family and my generation that has aged around me. It sears me that the pain, the loss and the wisdom we ought to have obtained is now. I see two choices before me. One leads to ever-increasing physical disability and dependence. It is a path of inevitability which can be approached with self-centered resolve or despair. The other path calls us to rise above and through the lessons of the body, the lessons of loss and grief to find the beauty of the human spirit. It is a quest for the meaning of our life, the reason we have been here and the contributions we have yet to make. Grant me the courage to follow the latter path like Betty, Judy and George.