This message is a love letter to all you young bloggers out there who’ll see it, and a hello to the older ones. Specifically, it’s also a reply to a post by one of my favorite bloggers who was musing on the topics of age, death, all that stuff.
I feel particularly qualified to respond, not just because I’m 78, but because when I was 58 I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a “terminal” illness with a predicted lifespan of 4 -6 years. The diagnosis was later changed to a form of chronic leukemia, a disease with a slightly longer expected lifespan.
Always remember that statistics apply to groups, not to individuals!! This April it will be 20 years — complete remission for 14 of those. I’m on the leukemia tree, but I’m on a really strong “branch.” The disease isn’t gone, but so what? We’re not constructed to think about our death all the time. We’re constructed to live.
I remember being on a date with a man I’d decided to tell about the leukemia. After dinner, he asked me how I coped with knowing I was going to die. I began to answer, then I stopped and said: “Probably the same way you do. I pour the orange juice in the morning and …” I remember he didn’t like the answer at all! He was, after all, trying to show empathy and also get an answer to his question, and all I was doing was reminding him that he was not exempt!
But that was the true answer. Oh, not at first. I was a basket case for many weeks, but not too long after I was diagnosed somebody made me laugh and I began the process of realizing that I might be able to live a normal life again.
One day, I asked my doctor how it would be “at the end.” He said there’s no predicting, but that dying is usually a very unique process in which your organs begin to fail and within a relatively short period of time, you die from it! Who thinks of it that way?
What that said in large, neon lights was that the rest of the time I wasn’t dying at all, anymore than anyone else! Even when 3 yrs later I ran out of treatment options and the possibility arose that I’d have to start the process of preparing for death, I wasn’t afraid. My doctor told me that he’d see to it that I received everything I needed so as not to be in too much discomfort, and I had total confidence that he would and could do it.
Now of course, I know that dying is never easy, unless you go quietly in your sleep. But I’ve faced a lot of things since then, and so have all of us by the time we’re up there in age, and one lesson I’ve learned well: fear passes, and when it’s there, it doesn’t hold the truth of things.
Let me say that again. Fear is a bunch of helpful chemistry that passes, like all emotions. And there are tranquilizing drugs that can calm us down and normalize our chemistry. But more important, the thoughts we have when we’re in fear are distorted thoughts — we’re preparing for danger and we’re thinking worst case scenarios. And aside from the moment of ceasing to live, our worst-case scenarios are not likely.
Death, being a necessary end, will come when it will come, as Hamlet said. But most of us are more afraid of suffering — and most suffering these days can be alleviated. Hospice is a wonderful invention and hospice workers are trained to listen to us and know how to keep us comfortable. I plan to use hospice when my actual dying time comes.
Now. About aging. Yes, sure — your body isn’t the same. But you get used to that, because you’ve had so many years to experience all kinds of changes and adjust to them. Women especially. And as we age, we depend on our looks much less. Does that mean don’t try to look pleasant and nice to behold? No. It’s always good to give pleasure to others.
But looking beautiful and young? Not so important. At my H.S. class’s 60th reunion last year (yup!), what was amazing was not the wrinkles, the balding, even the odd walker or wheelchair. It was how much we were the same and how much we related to each other in that way — and how quickly we saw each other as we were. Yes, we talked grandkids and retirement, but mostly we reminisced and laughed. Lots and lots of laughter.
You look at an old person and you see things you dread. But you dread them because you’re young! As you age, you feel differently. You accept the changes because you can! You find out that how one looks is not the be-all and end-all it is when you’re younger and in the business of finding and keeping a mate! By the time we’re in our 60’s and 70’s, relationships don’t subsist on good looks — they subsist on the comfort of having someone who knows you well and doesn’t judge you too much.
I could go on—but you get the idea. What you may not know is that there’s no question: this is the best period of my life. And that’s true for so many other old people I know. As for how old I feel inside? I think I’ve been growing up — it used to be 16, then it was 27, 35 … but now, I know that 78 isn’t at all what I thought it would be, and I’m beginning to feel 78 … 78 and enthusiastic, 78 and mostly healthy, 78 and in love with sunrises and trees and friends, 78 and grateful, 78 and content.
Today was my over 65 poetry class. Many of us have been together for several years, with some losses of people and some gains. Yes we’ve had deaths — those people stay in our souls — but we’ve also lost people who wanted to take the yoga class that met at the same time.
I thought the class would be — you know — an indulgence, a foolish, self-deluding passing of time. Instead, it’s become a deeply connecting experience. Our poems reveal a lot about us and after some years we know each other as well as if we’d been good friends. We hang around for an hour or more after class, having coffee, talking.
Furthermore, I’ve become a much better poet! I’ve learned, grown, worked hard. Some of my poems have appeared publicly … and I’m sending out poems to real poetry journals. I may just become a published poet, at 78!
Every stage of life has its pros and cons. So far, I don’t find more cons in this stage than I did when I was younger, or young. There is one con – for me maybe more than for some others because I have no children or husband now. Loneliness in the bone. But other people who have children don’t talk to them all the time and so are alone, and many have lost spouses and are alone too. It’s a hazard, and one must strategize about it.
I would recommend one thing: cultivate your friendships and be open to making new ones. Friends are like skiers on your slope, going at about the same speed a little distance away. You’re alone in whatever ways you want to be … listening to the sounds, smelling the air, etc., but you can always look over and wave, and a friend will wave back.
And definitely keep up with the treadmill! But if you don’t, don’t worry. It will be there down the line when you need it. ©