Many years ago, a spiritual teacher, taught me the phrase “Making death an ally”. I was in my early thirties at the time so while I understood it with my mind, I did not really get it at a gut level. Last week, I turned 54. All week, people were offering reassuring platitudes to help me feel better about my age: “50 is the new 30” or “you’re only as old as you feel”. And I kept thinking, “Maybe that was true at 40, but it is certainly not true at 54.”
My vision is going. My hearing is going. My joints are stiff in the morning. I can throw my shoulder out with a day of weeding in my garden. I can’t sleep through the night. My body’s thermostat appears to be broken and my waistline is disappearing. Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining.
All of this is normal. I know that I am lucky. I am a healthy woman for my age. And most of the time, I get out of bed eager to start my day. I am acknowledging a truth. I am trying to come to terms with my mortality. My birthday is an annual wake-up call; a reminder about how quickly the years fly by. It is an opportunity to re-evaluate my life; a scheduled reminder to re-consider my priorities.
This year, my birthday wake-up call is punctuated by my mother’s slipping
health. At 76, my mother is a mere shadow of her former self. She can no longer see well enough to drive. She is too confused to manage her money. She should not be living on her own. She is frustrated by her dependence on others and the shrinking circumference of her life. While my sisters and I hover around the sidelines trying to decide when we will have to intervene, I find myself thinking: “She is only 22 years older than me”.
So, if I only have 15 more healthy years to live, how do I want to spend them? Do I want to work as hard as I have for the last 30 years? Do I want to continue to live in southern Ontario where the winters are long and dreary and the summers are hot and humid? Do I want to live in a house that requires so much upkeep? What places in the world are a “must see” for me? Are there people I want to spend more time with? Are there things I still want to learn? Are there things I should be doing to take better care of myself?
This week, I don’t have many answers; just a lot of questions and a vague sense of grief. I am shaking hands with death; acknowledging what has been lost; and glimpsing into the future. The trick, of course, is to hold that truth without falling into despair; to use it to live each day fully; to help me stay present; to see the beauty in my own backyard; to connect with the people in my life; to get out of my head; and put the daily worries in their proper place.
This is a powerfully reflective piece, KP.
When I was 45, I was ill and left my body to enjoy a glorious freedom from my body. The docs brought me back and I wanted to be back for my children, but I never forgot that sense of freedom–until a couple of years ago, when the thought came that, “My, oh my, I’m in the last quarter (or less) of my life.” Then I thought of my children and my future grandchildren and felt sad, and mad, at having to leave them. I’ve also had to acknowledge that my health is not good and I may leave sooner as opposed to later. I’m shaking hands, as you so compellingly say, with death. Thanks for sharing your important questions with us, for this is a journey we all must take…
Dear Pam: Thank you once again for understanding what I am getting at…and for sharing something of your experience with death and poor health.. A few times, I have received notes from you that hint at your poor health. My heart goes out to you when I think of you, with your lovely spirit, feeling limited in your ability to live life by your ailing body. I wish there was something I could say or do that might ease the pain of that reality for you. I also feel incredibly fortunate to have found you, or rather been found by you, on the blogosphere. I have have really appreciated the notes I have received from you over the last several months. I am sure that there are others, like me, who feel their lives have been enriched by you. Kp