Let us not, in our perusal of aging, discard absurdity and poignance.
Two cartoon moments:
Two old men, related by virtue of their offsprings’ marriage, fragile with age and disease, are — unbeknownst to each other — sitting side by side, diminutive in large wing chairs, both there for a family gathering. Suddenly one, pitching forward, recognizes the other and cries, “Bud, you’re still here? I thought you were dead. I thought this was your memorial!”
Bud was, indeed, still with us.
My wife and I were at a wedding. It was a Saturday in June, on a wonderful island in Puget Sound. The ceremony, performed outdoors beneath a festooned chuppah, against a magnificent sweep, had ended, and brightly colored familial clods began dispersing toward drinks. The lawn spread out like a picnic blanket among ovoid beds planted with flowering trees and blooming perennials — islands of them. My vulnerable eyes fatigued with all the color. Cocktails floated by on trays. We partook, even as the sun herded us in clusters toward shade. Useless Bay glittered in the distance. A crackle in the loud speakers cleared to song and The Rolling Stones belted “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” Suddenly, across the uneven lawn bumped an elderly woman in a wheel chair, the hem of her emerald-green gown flapping. Her companion, bent double with the effort, pushed her in a ragged trajectory. With her cocktail gripped like a torch before her, she pitched forward to behold the view. Out they charged toward Useless Bay, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” the perfect caption.
Aging “well” might be considered the harvest of a good and lucky life. The good life, as the slogan relates to aging, typically brings to mind such conditions as financial security, safe and comfortable housing, and one’s community, supportive and engaged. In Seattle, where I live, it is luck and privilege that allow me to address aging’s many issues: how the aging are perceived, cared for in decline, welcomed as participants, or tossed like chaff to be borne on the scattering breeze. There are conferences and forums, workshops, manifestos — plenty to challenge the prevailing and limiting views. In a parallel universe — the one of advertising and media culture — there are the panaceas, the wars declared on wrinkles and sags, the diets promoting longevity, the brain games guaranteed to preserve our cognitive skills, the ridiculous bromides — 60 is the new 40! — and the like. This clatter drives me to reflection, and more and more, I find myself reflecting among the various “activities” of aging well.
At 68, old but not yet elderly, I’m gently aware of my incremental diminution. A bias has set up residency inside me — that I cannot view my age-related changes as growth, the way we view those of adolescence, say. It’s difficult to recognize the former as any kind of a gain.
The specifics unique to one’s aging, of course, can be neither projected, nor known, nor even imagined, really. My imagination projects my future me into familiar postures on familiar pieces of furniture in my familiar living room. In this scenario, my senses are only diminished, but as yet intact, like a calico cat gone dilute — the orange dimming to beige, the black fading to powdery gray.
I have heard voiced an objection to the use of the word still by those who are persuaded that our diminution can indeed be “done well.” The power of language to set an expectation, and thus shape belief, which then will mold behavior, is widely acknowledged. Still, in this sense, is believed to set an expectation — that we will ultimately “lose it.” Through language, our demise is hurried along by a carrion seed:
I can still hike for hours; I can still schlep 50-pound bags of compost; I can still walk without fear of falling; and the most desperate entreaty of all: I can still drive.
Initially, I was thrilled for the reframe. But I now find myself inclined to disagree.
I have decided to honor my stills, knowing that my losses will begin to announce themselves more fiercely, and pile up, like emptied mussel shells. That which I do now, that which adds richness and value — reading, reflecting, walking, pruning, robust chewing — will not always be. Let’s talk about reading. I read for all sorts of reasons — for companionship and discourse, to travel to places I will never go, and to delight in language beautifully employed.
I recently experienced a “crisis of the eye” — Graves-related ophthalmopathy — and almost lost my vision. So I am sensitive to the celebratory possibilities of still, as in, “I can still see.” So, yes, I say with rue and gratitude, I can still see! I can still read!
Can one rehearse when still applies no longer? You don’t catch the peony resisting petal drop, or the great blue heron conniving not to die.
A practicing Buddhist for more than 30 years, Hollis Giammatteo has sought experiences that challenge her practice, from teaching writing to working with the elderly. She co-founded, managed, and wrote plays for The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia and for Rhode Island Feminist Theater. Hollis has published in a variety of magazines, and her memoir, The Shelf Life of Ashes, was released in May by She Writes Press.