getting older


You have to understand: my mother wasn’t the sort of person you could imagine ever turning eighty years old. She was blond and beautiful and so sure she’d always be young–and she was so disappointed as each sign of aging came to her: the arthritis, the wrinkles, the thinning hair, the watery eyes. I mean, no one likes that stuff, but she seemed shocked that such things could dare to happen to her. Shocked!

“How can I get so old?” I remember her asking me one time when she was probably 50. “How can I ever not be pretty?”

It’s a little sad to think of, I suppose–someone who was so taken with looks that the thought of them disappearing made her feel as though nothing at all would be left of her. Wasn’t this the same woman who had told me when I was 10 years old that it was important to develop a personality because cuteness just wouldn’t see you through?

When she went to hospice four years ago at the age of 76, the nurse told me she was the first nursing home patient they’d ever had who insisted on wearing a toe ring.

And we laughed, my mother and I, because, as she put it: Cancer takes so much from you. You don’t have to give up your TOE RING to it, too, do you?

I’ve been through several deaths with people, but none quite like hers. When my father was dying, he simply got more and more quiet and introspective, stared out the window for longer intervals, whispered his requests for songs he wanted to hear on the CD player, and occasionally he’d rouse himself to try to make pleasant conversation about the cardinal outside at the bird feeder, or just who I thought might win the World Series.

My grandmother told me three days before she died that she’d be coming to my house in the spring–a fact I knew was untrue since she was in a hospice, hooked up to feeding tubes, with a terminal diagnosis. When I tried to talk about actual endings, she shushed me. “I’m going to be fine,” she said.

But my mother talked about it.

She’d call me in the middle of the night and say, “Where do you think I’ll be when I die?” and “How can I just not exist? What do you suppose that’s going to feel like?”

My uncle, her brother, was planning his wedding for the summer, and she and I would sit outside in the late May warmth, watching the azaleas bobbing in the breeze, and she’d say, “It’s the weirdest thing, talking to him about the wedding. I won’t still be alive then.”

“Maybe you will,” I said.

“No,” she said, and she wasn’t even particularly sad when she said it. “I won’t.” She was the one who had heard the cancer diagnosis, the prognosis, and then marched over to the phone, called hospice, signed the papers, and even joked with the startled, soft-voiced man who was being so delicate and careful. She was facing death head on, unflinching.

But now she looked out at some children playing across the street. “I just can’t picture how it’s all going to happen.”

I was worn out with grief and regret and arrangements, and I didn’t know quite how to be with her. I sat next to her for hours on end and let her talk. It was all I could think of to do for her. It’s sad now, thinking of her imagining not existing–sitting there so alive, so full of opinions and thoughts and regrets and remarks.

“I like this toe ring a lot,” she said. She and her toe ring. They were going to part ways.

She and I were going to part ways, too.

“I’ll contact you if I can,” she said one day out of the blue. But it wasn’t out of the blue, not really. It was just that we’d been at that moment discussing the banana pudding in front of her, pudding that she was pushing away from her. She had stopped eating by then. She was preparing to go, and she was sure it was coming soon.

When they called me at 6 a.m. a few days later and said she had died, I wasn’t surprised, of course. She and I had talked about this moment so much. I went to the hospice and sat with her in the room for a long time, or the part of her she’d left behind that really no longer seemed much like her. I couldn’t figure out if she would want me to see her like that or not. Maybe she would want me to turn away.

I knew she wanted me to take the toe ring, and so I did.

She would have been eighty today. She always said she hated growing old, but maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad. She could have gone to my uncle’s wedding that summer. She could have seen her first great-granddaughter born, could have met the two great-grandsons who were newborn infants when she died, infants she never got to see.

I don’t know where she is, but sometimes I still feel her around. I know sometimes what she’d say in situations, or at least I’m pretty sure I know. I can summon up the sound of her laughter. Is that just a memory or is it the same as her contacting me?

I’m not sure. She would have been eighty today. Would that have been so bad?

I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions because—well, frankly I don’t feel as though January is the true beginning of the year. It has always seemed to me that September is really the time to get organized, rearrange your drawers, get your hair cut, balance your checking account, and start planning for the future.

But recently, in our never-ending quest to lose five pounds and to look ten years younger, two friends of mine and I have decided to do the Five Tibetans every single day that we can possibly make ourselves think of it. “Doing Tibetans” isn’t as risque as it sounds; it’s really a series of five exercises, which were supposedly developed thousands of years ago as a way of stimulating the endocrine system and opening the body’s energy centers, or chakras. Hence, doing these exercises is said to make your body function as though it is 23 years old again.

We are looking forward to that, let me tell you.

In fact, these are amazing exercises. Since we’ve been doing them (about six months now, really), we’ve all lost a bit of weight, noticed that we have more energy, and—well, who knows? Soon perhaps we’ll regress to the point where we’re dancing late at night in clubs and drunk-dialing old boyfriends.

As an added winter bonus: doing these exercises also makes you warm! And they take just about ten minutes a day, fifteen if you lollygag as I often do. Here’s a video of a sexy man doing the Five Tibetans on a beach somewhere.

And if you’d like to read about the benefits, and the incredible story of how these rites were discovered, there’s a book, "Ancient Secret of the Fountain of Youth" by Peter Kelder, that tells you all about Colonel Bradford, a mysterious retired British army officer who learned of the rites while journeying high up in the Himalayas. Not only does the book teach you how to do these, but it lays out in splendiforous detail all the lovely things that happen to people who get their chakras spinning just right every day.

I tell you, between doing the Five Tibetans and drinking the green smoothies, I expect to be considerably younger by the end of the next decade.

 

Okay, everything you’ve heard about having a colonoscopy is right.

It’s not bad.

And it can save your life.

I was a big baby about it, the way I am about a lot of medical stuff I don’t want to think about.

Even the prep, which everyone says is the Very Worst Thing in the Whole World, was not that bad. I was given pills instead of the yucky liquid stuff, thirty-two pills, to be exact, with specific instructions as to how to take them.

The worst part by far was the dreading…and oh, yeah, fasting all day yesterday wasn’t so great. I kept forgetting that I wasn’t supposed to be eating, and would find myself thinking, “Ah, I know what I need! Some crackers!” And starting for the kitchen before I remembered…ah, yes, there’s a reason I’m so hungry.

All day, I felt like I was in some kind of countdown–four hours until I have to start the prep…three and a half hours ’til prep time…oh, NO! IN TWENTY SHORT MINUTES I HAVE TO TAKE FOUR PILLS THAT ARE GOING TO MAKE ME FEEL JUST AWFUL ALL NIGHT LONG, AND AFTER THAT I HAVE TO TAKE 16 MORE OF THEM AND THEN 12 MORE OF THEM TOMORROW MORNING! AND THEN WHAT IF I GO TO THIS APPOINTMENT AND IT TURNS OUT THAT I HAVE COLON CANCER THAT IS SO FAR ADVANCED THAT THEY CAN’T CURE IT AND I SHOULD HAVE COME IN YEARS AGO BUT I DIDN’T?

(One of the little known perks of being a writer is that you can always get to the worst case scenario in 0.2 seconds.)

But then the time came and I just did it. Told my crazy monkey mind to take the night off and go off somewhere, and I took the pills and spent the evening reading a very good book and admiring the decor of our bathroom.

I woke up in the morning before the alarm went off at 6 and took the rest of the pills, admired the decor some more, re-told the monkey mind that we would be NOT thinking about colon cancer anymore this morning…and by 9:20, we were on our way to the Endoscopy Center.

Once there, I was fine. The nurses were all chatty and nice. We discussed books we were all reading; one of them had read one of my novels, and we talked about that. We talked about where we get our hair colored and how awkward it is to break up with a hairdresser. I put on a hospital gown, and they started a saline IV and filled out a questionnaire about my health.

I was a little taken aback when one of the nurses asked me, as part of routine questions, if I had a Living Will. I must have looked startled–I mean, this is just a colonoscopy, right?–because she leaned over and touched me on the arm and said, “Don’t worry. Your Living Will wouldn’t count for anything here anyway. If anything goes wrong, we are going to revive you!”

Oh. Good then.

We moved along to the room itself, and I was told to lie down on my left side on the bed, underneath the sheet. We talked about all the good food I was planning to eat later on, and then the doctor came in and asked me how I felt.

The nurse said, “Okay, we’re ready to get started.” She smiled at me and said, “Good night! You’ll be back in thirty minutes!”

And everything suddenly went black. No fading out, no count to ten. Just–GONE.

The very next moment the doctor was standing at the foot of my bed, speaking loudly: “I HAVE NOTHING BUT GOOD NEWS FOR YOU!” And my husband was sitting next to me, and it was 35 minutes later.

I got up and got dressed. Everything had gone well, he said. He did remove two tiny little polyps that looked absolutely benign, nothing to worry about, he said.

“No evidence of any cancer,” he said and smiled. When I had had my consultation in July, my mother had only been dead a month, and I was shaking the whole time we talked.

I have to go back again and have another in three years, due to the family history. But next time I won’t be scared. 

  

 

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The New Year isn’t even three weeks old, and already a lot of people are fed up with it.

Let’s face it. We are an anxious, exhausted people, made worse by the fact that there is a war lingering on and a winter that isn’t quite a winter, and so you can’t quite feel good about the fact that you may need to mow your lawn soon and you haven’t had to shovel even one flake of snow yet. Worse, it seems that just in my little beleaguered circle of friends, people are suffering from pneumonia, meningitis, cysts, sudden irreversible deafness in one ear, torn ACLs, car breakdowns on highways, computer screens shattering when books fall on them, family arguments, missed appointments, clinical depression, and writing rejections.

And, as if all that isn’t bad enough, now objects are starting to go missing.

Just this week I have spent hours looking for the following items: the receipt to the replacement phone I bought that will not work out and must be returned to the store; the password to Stephanie’s bursar account so I could find out why the hell they are still sending me a bill which they know and I know that I already paid in full, otherwise they wouldn’t have let her register for classes; the headphones to my iPod…and of course, my keys.

Then today I go see my friend Deb, and wouldn’t you know that she’s as anxious and exhausted as the rest of us–really maybe worse. She has lost all her estrogen patches. FIFTY DOLLARS WORTH OF ESTROGEN PATCHES, the only things, she says, that stand between her and even the possibility of sanity since her hysterectomy three years ago.

She has spent days and days looking for these things, dreading and postponing that moment when she has to try to get her doctor on the phone and in ten seconds explain that she needs a new prescription–no, she hasn’t used them all in a riot of estrogen frenzy; no, she’s not selling them to perimenopausal women on the street; yes, she’s looked everywhere; please, please, please, for God’s sake, just write me out a new prescription so I can go and spend fifty more hard-earned dollars for another box.

“And then,” she said calmly, “I realized what had happened to them. My dog Miles ate them.”

We looked at each other.

“He ate them?” I said.

“All of them.”

“And he lived?”

“Yes.”

“But how do you know he really ate them?”

“Well, how do you think I know? He’s wearing pearls and high heels and barking about how he wants to redecorate the place. How else would I know?”

Like a lot of my fellow boomers, I’ve been trying to find time to schedule my mid-life crisis. But frankly, there just hasn’t been time. Between fighting with all my inanimate technology objects, trying to rid the house of leftover Christmas truffles by eating them, and attempting to figure out what comes next in my novel, I just haven’t seen when I could pencil it in.

You can’t blame me for feeling I deserve a full-blown crisis. I’m a boomer, after all. Ours was the generation that had the worst attitudes about aging of any generation in the history of the world. We were almost positive we could avoid it if we worked at it hard enough, if we refused to stop running.

The secret nobody ever told us was that, despite our best efforts, we were all going to slowly start looking like Buddy Hackett–yet we were going to feel exactly the same as we felt in our twenties.

And then today, even as I was to reconcile that not-yet-old-but-no-longer-young feeling I get whenever I am forced to look at my reflection in a mirror,  I found a blog called The Boomer Chronicles, and saw the real answer for what I’m going through. Rhea says that what we boomers see when we look in the mirror is youthiness.

Is that great or what? Like Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert’s concept of truthiness, this works. It’s a nice blurry word for us. Sums us up perfectly.

Rhea says it sums up our “utter, unrelenting ability to feel and act youthful despite all indications to the contrary.”

Now if I could just zip up my jeans after dinner…