Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Joys of Later Life

I knew a couple, both in their seventies, who lost a son to suicide. When the mother replied to my sympathy card, she said that she was sad that her son would not come to know the joys of later life. At the time I did not know about such joys, but a few decades have rolled by since and I’m beginning to get it. For one thing, by the time you’re in your late sixties, you’ve had pretty much every kneejerk reaction a person can have, and you understand that drama is best left on the stage, because in real life drama is a waste of time and energy. For another thing, you begin to make peace with mortality, your own and that of other people. Remember the first time you grasped the fact of your own expiration? What a bummer. You may have felt terror. You may have wept. You may have shivered and shuddered alone in your bed in the dark. Different people are bound to have different feelings about death, but in general I’d say they’re against it. I once worked as a chore assistant for a 100-year-old woman, whom I shall call Mildred (not her name). She was in a wheelchair, but her mind was working fine, thank you. About all she could do anymore was crochet baby blankets and tell me I’d missed a spot on the carpet while vacuuming, but she was alive and lively for all that. Her 97-year-old cousin, Gertrude (not her name) came to visit one week, and while Mildred napped Gertrude told me that some people, like Mildred, wanted to live forever. Gertrude said, “I’m 97 and I’m ready to go any time, but Mildred just wants to go on and on.” She shook her head with an air of irritation, as if to say, honestly, doesn’t she know when it is time to quit? So apparently the realization of your own mortality and your feelings about it evolve as you re-visit the prospect over the years. Perhaps as time goes on you realize, like Gertrude, that there might come a time when you are ready to rest. As you watch friends and family slip into their eternal rest, you grieve deeply, but you realize that your time is coming, and that if all the people you knew and loved and who knew and loved you are gone, well, heck, who is left to remember those dances at the Spanish Castle (or Avalon Ballroom) with you? Even in age, even in grief, even in physical infirmity, even knowing that there will be a last dance and you’ll have to go home, you can feel the joy of being alive. My husband passed away last year after many years of illness that ground him down. I am gradually getting used to his being gone, though I miss him terribly. He was the best company, and we shared forty years of history. I don’t think the wedding vows are supposed to be a check list – you know, richer, check; poorer, check; sickness, yeah, dammit; health – it was nice while it lasted, and so on – but I think we hit most of those conditions at one time or another during our life together. When you’re getting married, you’re hearing the vows and saying, yeah, yeah, whatever, I will. You don’t realize that those vows are covering all the things that are really going to happen in a lifetime. But I digress. So I’m a widow now, and I’m getting old, and I don’t have much in the way of worldly fortune. And yet – when I got up this morning the sun was shining. I went out in the yard and pulled up a few feverfew plants – don’t worry, they’ll be back. Feverfew is a tenacious plant – and the exercise made me feel good, as well as the new unobstructed view of the flower bed. I made a cup of coffee, gave the dog her morning biscuits, and sat on the kitchen porch watching the chestnut-backed chickadees pulling seed out of the bird feeder, and I sang: “My life goes on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation…” Turns out that there are joys in old age. Turns out that grace rains down, and life bubbles up, and it’s good to be alive, just because, even if you’re lonely and grieving and walk with a limp and have high cholesterol and life seems too hard sometimes. So stick around, friends. You wouldn’t want to miss the joys of later life.

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