writing to survive
. . . only the retelling counts

No place for sissies

I spent a lot of time on this post yesterday. It had nice turns of phrase, sentences that made me proud, images that were hard to shake, and an underlying indirect smugness that I just couldn’t stomach. So here I am, back at the keyboard, hoping to salvage my thoughts and keep the best of it.

In the extended
wts family, there are two elderly relatives, one just this side of 90, the other a faltering step past it. The older relative has just had to vacate her home of over 40 years, while the younger one is still holding on strong. But neither of them has a real plan for what happens as they become more physically infirm which, by one’s late 80s, with many more years possibly ahead, is more a matter of when than if.

For a variety of reasons, this topic is difficult to raise. The end result is that two people who value their autonomy may lose (or have lost) it and have very little say on the next step, while the burden for making those decisions falls on people who have been given no instructions and get the strong feeling that such a discussion would be extremely unwelcome. As someone who has not yet written a will or an advance directive, I understand the avoidance of the grim facts, though they feel more theoretical than immediate at this stage in my life. The current situations and how they might play out, however, are maddening.

What do you do when the body starts to wear out and the mind is not the steel trap it used to be? Do you plan for this eventuality before it becomes actuality? Or do you wait for the cookie to crumble, for the argument to unravel, for the fraying fabric to threaten the integrity of the entire garment?

I have some years to go yet (I hope!), but I vote for planning. And, ideally, facing not only the difficult questions of what happens next, but the difficult emotions, too, which is too much to ask of anyone who isn’t ready to go there. But as I have watched these relatives experience the slow falling away of physical capabilities, I have seen up close what happens when a still sharp mind handles the indignities of old age through avoidance. Unaccustomed to vulnerability, the person who kept their emotions in a lockbox in a boarded-up room in a closed-off wing experienced emotional bleed-through. The membrane between the said and not-said, between the way they thought they felt and the way they really felt, became porous, and the unresolved past, the dodged emotions and calloused grudges, leaked out in unpredictable ways. That person dealt with the spillover by directing it at an innocent party. It wasn’t pretty.

I am hopeful that examining the story of my life, letting those emotions and grudges out voluntarily, living openly with ambiguities and trespasses past and present, will head off that sort of ugliness. That’s easy for me to say, of course. After all, I am only halfway to 90 and already comfortable with my emotions and well-trod storyline.

I don’t want to be a prisoner of the incidentals of the past, chained to my history. I do want control over my fate for as long as possible. And yet the long-overdue first step of making a will and an advance directive, with its reminders of what is inevitable, scares the crap out of me.

Maybe this stuff isn’t so easy.

_____
Title from the Bette Davis quote “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” Image from the same link.

In the first version of this, I kept calling it an “advanced directive.” Clearly I have some brain block here (and will be working on that and a will very soon).
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The best of what used to be

I recently came across credit card entries from the pre-9/11 early 2000s Washington, DC life my husband and I led before he was my husband, well before we entertained thoughts of wedlock and childbearing. Oh, how long ago are the days of relative youth in a District with restaurants that are now but ghosts, and neighborhoods that have gone from forgotten to hot in eight years of absence. I think of you and weep, Viagreggio (though you passed on well before we left, I have not had a true cheese sub since your demise) and also for you, Gabriel, with the tapas we enjoyed and the fabulous brunches we never attended. I remember your U Street presence, Coppi’s and the unfamiliar clots of harried parents intermixed with the bloated and the hungover at The Diner, which opened, then closed, and is now open again. Before there was the Amsterdam Falafelshop there was a lovely, doomed French place that served Belgian beer and these amazing sandwiches. And we still mourn the Italian restaurant on 18th Street that closed before the boy was born where we would linger with ravioli and a bottle of Montelpuciano.

The city lives in my absence and it will continue to morph, to change, to become more itself while I occupy a totally different quiet life thousands of miles away, a life molded by a child and years of isolation and no paycheck. I am not the same person I was in my early 30s, but I would love to get a spark of her back. It’s like I was in love and when my lover betrayed me (who betrayed whom?) I ran off across the country to this simpatico town where it never rains and we are boxed in on all sides by busy, ugly streets and my self-definition withered down to who I was to other people. I dug myself into a pit and now am crawling my way out of it, but the landscape has changed all around me and I’m somehow in my mid-forties, years lost, identity somewhat battered, a flimsy thing that barely stands up on its own. In the process of gaining a son and all the true joy and pain associated with being a parent, I gave up some things I should have held on to.

I miss my ability to be spontaneous. I miss long walks down gorgeous streets. I miss levity and unfettered freedom and optimism. But most of all, I miss my independence, the deep knowledge that I am a separate human being with needs, wants, and interests, who could look forward to the future and occupy the present. I want it back.

Who am I? I can be more than a mother. I can be more than a wife and a recluse. I am a student, but is going to school the right thing? I think so. Still, I don’t know how all the pieces fit together. Everything is unfamiliar. It’s no wonder that a glimpse of the me who used to be – the we who used to be – makes me mournful. Why not retrieve the best of her while keeping the good stuff from who I am now?

It can be done. So I will do it.

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Image from Counterforce.
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Sunrise . . .

As I handed out candy last night to princesses and four layer cakes, to bloodied skeletons and World War I Flying Aces, I was struck by the range of early human development on display. There were shy toddlers, unsure young elementary schoolers, just-this-side of ironic tweens, and transitioning teens. And many of the parents were much younger than me, which is how things go eventually. I occupy a different demographic now, the 45-54 bracket.

Seeing such a variety of kids and grownups in one night and thinking back on my own life and how I got to this place emphasized the different stages of life. We journey from infancy to adulthood to old age, the steps larger and more frequent in childhood, smaller and gradual as time accumulates. I’m watching it happen with the boy, who has grown so much in the last year and is already forgetting what it is like to be small. I see it in my baby boom parents who have aged with me. I notice it in myself and my husband, as we begin to occupy this strange in between phase, youth gone, old age not yet reached, with changes that in some ways mimic adolescence, minus that potentially glittering endless rolling future – though there may be many decades ahead yet.

I’ve decided to embrace it, to acknowledge the process and celebrate the path behind and ahead, for the boy, for me, for my husband and my parents. It’s all part of a cycle, part of time and the ways of the earth. We are born, we grow old, and we die. I want to occupy the moment I’m in
right now and value what it took to get here without mourning the loss of those versions of me, preserved in memory, held in my heart.

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Image of 1950 trick-or-treaters in various stages of development from Pinterest.
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Waiting for this moment to arise

Forty-five.

Forty-five?

Forty-five???!?

I write it down with such chagrin now so I can laugh at myself in a few years.
Forty-five? I’ll say. Please! I was the picture of middle-aged youth, halfway through the forties, but not that close to fifty. Everything still worked pretty well, too.

The first time I bemoaned my rapidly advancing age on the blog was
when I turned 39, and now that time seems like an age of skipping to and fro in gingham frocks with a pair of patent-leather Mary Janes on my feet. Sure, the skipping was a little slow and sad and it wasn’t that long before those hops were punctuated by uncontrollable crying at unpredictable moments throughout the day, but hey! I was younger then, so much younger than today.

Younger and unhappier. Trapped in the tar of the past. The past still has meaning. It always will – it created and shaped me. But it no longer feels like it is the sole definition of who I am and what I am capable of doing. Perhaps, like
Grace, the one who showed me I had wings, feather-light and steel-strong, I am slowly becoming more myself, getting to the essence of who I am.

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Image: Me wearing my wings, a wonderful birthday present, care of the lovely Grace. Picture taken by my husband in a rush before he and the boy left the house this morning, then slightly altered by me.

And a shout-out to the Beatles, who provided the title for the post as well as a line within it.
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Crumbling of the facade

As I get older, the men I think are attractive age with me. Give me a lived-in look, spider-webbed networks around the eyes, deep laugh lines, hair gone to gunmetal. What would it be like to hold that rough, scarred hand, sinewy and tough, to listen to the stories of youth gone and hear about the lumps and bumps along the way? Would we have crossed paths back then? Even noticed each other? Not that I’m looking for a hand to hold. I have my own guy who has been by my side for over sixteen years now. We age together, gray hair by gray hair. But a woman can have the occasional actor crush, can’t she? (And if not that actor, definitely this one.)

To me, younger men have the puffy look of unbaked bread, a smooth, glib freshness, which is great when you’re 20, less appealing a lifetime later. There is no danger there, only the rough bumbling of the amateur learning how to live. I wouldn’t go back. I couldn’t. I’ve lived too much and for too long and who wants to, anyway? I am right where I need to be.

But I still haven’t gotten used to this aging thing for myself, to the circles under my eyes and the falling of flesh. The line that cuts between my brows becomes more deeply sculpted with every year, the chin is losing its elasticity. Aging for the ladies is a different prospect than for the menfolk. Fresh-faced and lightly lived in, flaunting the pull of the fecund, youth is the currency women deal in. We have no “distinguished” aging path and as the years accumulate we disintegrate, become ghosts, immaterial, unimportant, unseen.

My British actor crush, Steve Coogan? He’ll be 49 next week. The lingerie model he’s dating is 23. This, apparently, is
how they met, in a quintessentially British “lad magazine” pose, woman as groped accessory. I can see the appeal. She’s beautiful and curvy with a ripple-free countenance and depths that need time to plumb. Why not be with someone young, gorgeous, and unspoiled, especially if you like them, too? Still, at least my other crush, Jon Hamm, has marched past 40 with his lady friend. They’ve been together even longer than I’ve been with my guy. It can be done, even in Hollywood.

It seems to be our fate to slowly fade away. Very few are exempt. And as I stare 45 in the face -- halfway to 50! -- I am nervous about what’s to come. Wouldn’t go back. Don’t know what’s ahead. But I imagine it will involve more crumbling of the facade, a whittling down to the essentials, the concentration of who I am into something real and true.

_____
Image by me, taken last January.
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