In the last couple of weeks, as I rushed around with Mark and without Mark trying to pull items together to help my grandmother when the relative who lives with her was hospitalized, I had the oddest impression.
It went like this: This is the week when I began to grow old.
Seriously: Maybe the feeling will go away, but I have taken away from it this very strange gut-level feeling that, when I am myself elderly and I look back upon my life, October 2015 will turn out to be a turning point, a hinge around which the whole neatly folds in half.
It seems unlikely that I have received the gift of prophecy and that my span will turn out to be exactly eighty-two years, so something else is going on here. What is it?
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Well, a lot went on in the past few weeks, for sure.
I found myself suddenly an advocate for not one but two older relatives, my truly elderly grandmother and another, not-quite-old-enough-for-Medicare relative with a severe health problem and a lack of insurance. I wasn't alone -- I have two cousins and a brother, and the four of us passed information back and forth in a Facebook Chat window for the whole time, with one out-of-state cousin making a lot of the necessary phone calls and the other two, juggling job and other family responsibilities, stepping in where they could. And I had a lot of support from Mark and his parents, who took all the children on short notice.
The transition, although it was temporary, was jarring. My primary work is usually my own children's education, from the teenager all the way down to the toddler. I am engaged most of the time in the same sort of thing I was doing when I was about 27. Suddenly, instead of mother of small kids I became for a couple of weeks the adult daughter caring for elderly and ill relatives. Never mind that I am technically the granddaughter here. This is the kind of thing that I associate with women whose own children are mostly grown; the women in my family who have spent a lot of time concerned about their parents' generation have done most of that in their own sixties. I got a taste of that this past couple of weeks. And I had more than a few moments of "Aren't I too young to be doing this?"
(But what else am I supposed to do, eh? My mother died twelve years ago at 54, leaving a gap between myself and Grandma, a wound that doesn't flare up often these days but that ached awfully these past few weeks.)
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So I nearly gave myself a plugged duct, I was away from my nursing toddler for so many hours. Trips to the hardware store, and hours scrubbing down bedframes and wiping surfaces, and moving things around in a dusty basement, standing up from time to time to stretch my back and adjust a paper dust mask that grew sweaty and moist as the hours went by.
Mark and I nearly got in a car wreck on one of those trips from the hardware store. It was just the two of us in the van, the seats folded down to store a thick stack of new packing boxes, and as I drove and came past the front end of a queue of cars in the turn lane, a sports car coming the opposite direction turned left directly in front of me. I stomped the brake to the floor and felt the anti-lock system pulsing back at my foot; I saw the sports car's rear quarter panel rotating towards me; Mark shouted, we braced for impact; and then we found ourselves still driving, unscathed, and both of us laughing nervously, genuinely shocked to find ourselves in the region of the multiverse where the collision did not happen.
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I spent time with my grandmother, walking at her speed, seeing a room with her eyes. Is this chair sturdy enough to lean on? How far is it to the next doorway? Should we take the steps which are closer, or go around the long, no-steps way? How will we hold this heavy door open wide enough to go through together, with her leaning on my arm?
I spent time explaining my ill relative's complicated insurance history, and history of poor self-care, to the social service staff at the skilled nursing facility. Privacy laws prevented them from telling me anything about my relative's condition, but no rule prevented me from, for example, warning them that my relative (and the relative's belongings) had come from a house terribly infested with bedbugs. (They were visibly grateful that I told them.)
In my grandmother's living room emptied of its infested furniture, sitting on wooden chairs and at a table pulled from various other rooms of the house, I met a representative from a company that provides in-home services to elderly people: laundry, light housekeeping, errands, meals, eventually more intense care. We discussed what Grandma needs and doesn't need. Gradually it became clear that Grandma, who knows what she wants and is completely mentally competent and financially solvent, does believe that she would benefit from having someone to come in and do her laundry, but emphatically does not want to bring in any hired helpers unless she is certain that doing so won't hurt my other relative's feelings.
In the privacy of the car, later, I wept. I gnashed my teeth.
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Meanwhile, my children were enjoying a last romp around Mark's parents' farm. Yes, a last romp: my in-laws are selling the twenty-something acres of orchards and fields and gardens and ponds, the barns and sheds and greenhouses and tractors. They are looking forward to a future with more travel, more visits to the grandchildren, more time with their three adult kids who live in three different cities. Time and attention if not love being a zero-sum game, that means less attention available for fruit trees and farmers' markets. The weeks we stayed were also weeks of watching my mother-in-law wonder how she was going to pack up her sewing room, weeks of wondering when that appraiser was going to come through.
The new house will be large enough to host us all at holidays, but there will be no farm nor field nor pond. We will miss it. It makes my heart hurt a little to think that my youngest son will not remember the old home place, nor sit on Grandpa's lap to steer the tractor. Mark has known other homes in his childhood, but I haven't known him or his family in any other place; it has been a home to me since before he and I were married.
But even though we are going to miss it, there is no denying the sense of downsizing now while the two of them don't actually have to, and can take the time to do it right. We have learned a lot from those two and they still have a lot to teach us.
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Illness, hospitalization, emergency surgery, and recuperation struck in what is left of my family of origin, too, at the same time as Grandma's crisis. My brother and I agreed: I would focus on helping Grandma and he would focus on helping in our family of origin.
This was certainly the best possible division of labor.
It left me introspective.
Time runs short for everyone, at every moment. And nothing we do, say, or wish -- not even when we happen to notice time running short -- can ever change a person who does not want to change. This is what "acceptance" can mean. It can even lead to forgiveness, of a particularly silent and one-sided type.
I am dead to you. This means that I am free.
I highly recommend dying to sources of harm, of mockery and deceit. I am certain that I am not the first person to come up with the idea.
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And then a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to help her start up an invitation-only FB group called "NFP After 40." A bit more than 20 women immediately accepted the invitations, all of us with a collective "WTF are we supposed to do now with what we're seeing here." I have a feeling I will be enjoying this group. Nevertheless, beginning to think collectively about menopause, coincidentally or not, certainly added to my feeling of having hit a tipping point.
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So what happened here? Why the sudden bout of wrinkly-navel-gazing? How is it that, if I feel that way now, I didn't feel that way before? It's not like I had been ignorant of my status among the middle-aged.
I guess... This past couple of weeks, Mark and I looked the future in the eye, just a bit. We contemplated disability, decline, disease, death. Sometimes you just can't avoid it.
When I say "This is the week I began to grow old" I do not mean, the start of a decline. I don't mean anything bad at all. Growing old is better than the alternative. I guess, it has been a kind of a wake-up call. I saw before me many different ways of growing older, this week. I think this was a week in which I grew wiser. I hope I will look back on it that way.
I know two things in a concrete way I didn't before. The wise person looks ahead with clear eyes and prepares for the future. And the wise person knows that the future can't, actually, be seen clearly.
What I do with this new knowledge, well, I am not sure yet. I suppose it depends still on the present.