Sunday, March 20, 2016

On Life and Love and Growing Old

By Diana C. White

Not that I know much about it, classmates, but we're all 80, or a little bit more or a tiny bit
less.  And we're dealing with lots of issues and discoveries that seem to be part of growing
old.  And I'm not at all sure I like it.

Well, to get into this slowly, when I turned 75 I felt “senior citizen” was just a silly designation
to give myself, although I happily take the discounts.  I felt to describe myself as  “growing
older” was way too tentative to do the job.  Dears, I decided I am just plain no frills old.  No
throwing roses at it, I'm old.  “There,” I said to myself, “I've dealt with it.  I'm old.  So there.”

Fine, well, and good.  And labeling it that far was still only circling around it, and fooling
myself I was dealing.  To my discredit, I'm good at that.

I'm in fairly good health.  Of course, there are some problems.  My joints are for spit – I wear
out cartilage like it was an annoyance I was getting rid of.  I thank God for joint replacement
surgeries; new left knee two years ago, new right shoulder last spring; no surgeries
contemplated for the immediate future, but the left shoulder will have to be dealt with.  And I
suppose eventually the right knee.  After I turn 80 come December, getting a surgeon who
accepts the task happily may be the trick, and nailing down insurance an even bigger
challenge!  So far it helps, at least with the surgeons, that I don't have much gray in my hair

Part of the reason I am planning no surgeries for at least a full year, maybe more, is that
after the second surgery, coming barely a year after the first, I felt different.  Rather vague.
No clear complaints, but a pervasive formless uneasiness.  Especially when I was cleared to
drive again.  Before I headed out anywhere, it was important to me to go over in my head
my route.  GPS thingies are wonderful, but I needed to know before I set out, I needed to
feel I'd located myself somehow.  Now, I'm visual, always have been, prefer visual modes for
learning, for expressing myself, for the joy of it.  I'm a quilter, after all!  But this need – I can
call it no less – to review in my head where I was going was anxious.  I was anxious.  A good
bit of the time.

All of us experience the “What did I come in here for!” moment.  I was having lots of those
moments.  Most of us have done the – oops, in mid story, what was I saying?  Where was I
going with this?  If I put a load of clothes in the washer, I had to develop a system to see
that wash load through the dryer and the fold and put away steps – this after a few times of
getting up the next day to a tub of damp and unhappy laundry.  I also realized I was not
following easily and naturally the thread of my words or anyone else's words, as I had always
done; I had to work at it.  Anxiously.  I was forever dialing my own cell phone since I had no
clue where I'd put it down last. I was losing things I had just handled.   Often.  I was finding
myself derailing myself by doing something else in the middle of what I was purportedly
doing, and losing the flow entirely.  Yes, that was not unknown in my experience, but the
frequency was somewhat increased and the accompanying anxiety was a new element.

I worried about it, in and out, looking for a connecting line, an explanation, words to put
around the whole thing.  Unnoticed TIA.  Anesthesia after-effects.  Temporary aberration.
Personal goofiness.  If I had something to call it, maybe I could deal with this better (a
lifelong delusion I have obviously fostered).

Meanwhile, people around me, whom I love dearly, were also dealing with health issues,
personal crises, illnesses, concerns, worries.  The illness of loved ones.  The troubles of
grown children, about which we can do so little.  The sudden death of spouses.  The
wretched diagnostic trek, frustrating and sometimes long drawn out, occasioned by the onset
of more severe manifestations of chronic conditions in oneself or one's loved ones.  The living
with chronic illness or disability.  The medication regimens, the hospitalizations, the strokes
and aftermath.  The more frequent eye exams and new glasses, the hearing aids, the canes
in the car because they might be needed.  I am actively keeping in touch with some
classmates who are especially dear to me now, to the point where we usually copy to the rest
of us when we send an email update to one of us in particular.  For this handful of us, this
contact has deepened and become more frequent since 2014 when we celebrated our 60th
anniversary from our 1954 CHS graduation.  Among these special folks there are also health
and personal issues and crises.  More and more among my high school and college friends I
hear of nursing homes and in-home care and not driving after dark.

O golly, o golly, o golly.

During the two years' worth of dealing with surgeries and physical and occupational therapy,
I was not able to visit my children with my usual happy frequency.  It has been my habit for
several years to go to Knoxville or to Kingsport to be with my children and their spouses a
couple of times a year, and my children-by-marriage in Greenville, of course around the
Christmas season, but also at other times.  For a few years Reid has been traveling a lot for
the AAFP (American Academy of Family Physicians) and visits to Kingsport for fun weekends
have been few anyway.  Time to pick that all up again.  And so this year, the no-surgery-for-
me-thanks year, I went to Knoxville to spend a weekend early in March.  As always, we talked
our heads off, we caught up, we bought books, we did fun stuff (if you haven't seen
Zootopia, go do it), we ate wonderful meals.

And somewhere near the end of the weekend, my blessed daughter Kay swallowed hard and
introduced the subject of my growing old – I don't remember exactly how.  I could not quote
her, even one sentence.  She's good, she's a wordsmith, like all of us, a psychologist in a
residential treatment program for troubled adolescents, skilled, knowledgeable, caring and
empathic.  I know she sometimes paused to let me speak, even invite me to speak – I could
not, not really.  I felt pole-axed.  I went into total self-cocooning, the I'm-visible-but-I'm-not-
really-here mode.  I'm not sure how the conversation went, I just know I contributed little,
and I did not follow her progression – except that I understood that she and her big brother
Reid, the physician who's comfortable giving an on-air medical class on a national level, and
frequently has to deal with hard medical news and families, had talked and he had given her
the job, here, you do it.  He owes her, big time.

I came home and finally let myself feel the hurt, the anxiety, the outrage, the “That's mine to
initiate talk about,” the what'm I gonna do!  I talked to my friend Claudia, and came home
from being listened to and immediately texted my children.  I let them know, both of them
know, that Kay and I had had the talk, and I was dealing with it, and I didn't really appreciate
what must have been a tough job from their perspective, since from where I sat it was no fun
at all.  O dear.  Kay called instantly, in tears.  It's not nice to smack your children down by
text and email, especially when you're PO'd.  (Fill in the words yourself).  So I had to
compose a more grown-up and balanced letter (it's in final-draft stage), and will send it and
anxiously await phone calls and so on.  And writing this is part of my own getting more real
about it all.  It's huge.  That's some of why I was doing my own kind of spotty denial.

Oh, you understand, it's certainly not that I now have it all pegged down.  Not even I can
convince myself I have now Got It Done.  Far from it.  But thanks to Kay's talking with me, I
am more openly dealing with and thinking about – and (oddly) enjoying – this old-age stage
I'm in.  Getting acquainted with the idea, as it were, exploring the familiar countryside.  For
some time I had been thinking about and noting several things.  All were still a bit discrete, a
bit separated.  Thinking hard around it, not at the sharing stage yet (except Claudia).  So I
think I was at least somewhat in what can perhaps be called denial.  Now just because I can
say it, and even see it in other people, and am to some degree dealing with it, somehow
doesn't mean I had it all together and labeled. So pieces were separate maybe and maybe
not all labeled (how can a good mind compartmentalize so beautifully it thinks it's way open
and free-flowing!) - some of those pieces are now dancing around in the sunlight and
shadow, and teaching me things (well, it's not all dancing – there's some muttering and
snorting too).  And there may still be some denial.  Inwardly kicking and screaming seems to
be the mode I employ when I don't care for where something's going, and outside it may
look like snarling and spitting and saying bad words.

You remember when you had little kids and had to teach them things some of which they
didn't care for?  Table manners.  Telling somebody you're sorry.   Doing your homework.
Telling the truth.  Yes, you have to eat the green things. Yes, you make a promise, you keep
it.  All that stuff.  All the stuff you had to embody in order to teach it.  You remember that,
hmmm?  Well, sometimes mamas and daddies do teach children.  And it's not for long,
really.  After that it's mostly children teaching their mamas and daddies.

I have very brave and responsible and honorable children, 'specially Kay in this particular
instance of children teaching their mama.  So I thank them both, and I am bragging some
more about them to my friends (including Claudia, whose indignation on my behalf is so
healing), and I'll be the one swanning around being old and proud.  When I'm not snarling
and spitting and turning the air blue.

Oh, and I should mention, I am prepared to set a shining example of elder wisdom and old-
age sass; followers and admirers are welcome.   I also have a great store of and am making
up more bad words that could be a real resource!