Final illnesses were whispered about in my childhood and death, the Big D, was rarely discussed. And so it remained until, when in my fifties, I heard a Tibetan monk speak at a University lecture. My eyes were opened. He told our audience that monks greet one another by saying, “Remember you’re dying.” Wow! That made an impact. At first it sounded so grim, but then it sounded so daring and seize-the-dayish. The exact opposite of the world I grew up in.
The monk’s words opened a window for me. I started to read a bit more about death and rather than repress it, I encouraged myself to think about Death as inevitable and natural. As I got more deeply into The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which I’d purchased at the monk’s lecture, I quickly saw that I couldn’t easily adopt the Buddhist beliefs of reincarnation. However, the realization did dawn on me, that like it or not, without death, life would have no meaning. I slowly began to integrate a greater acceptance of it in my life.
Now that I’m 75, the thoughts about how many years remain for me, are more frequent. A slight medical scare might trigger a thought that this event might just be the beginning of the end. But, truth be told, it always has. I know that by the time one is in their 70’s, death is not considered premature. When I talk about the big D with others, I am usually quickly reassured that I have many more healthy years to go. I sense a distinct distaste for a serious conversation, although the infirmities of age are joked about a lot. The reassurances are well intentioned, but hollow. The truth is, most of us just don’t know the amount of time remaining to us and all we do is just hope for the best.
How does one prepare for a life that could become in all likelihood increasingly infirm? Can one prepare or should one prepare? Even in a partnership like marriage, one of the partners will always go through end of life without the other. Romance can take you just so far.
Recently, a dear friend of mine died after a long illness. I’d lost touch with him over the years. I always found a reason not to visit with him during his illness. “Next week,” I’d tell myself. It turned out that next week did not arrive for him. From my sadness and frustration with myself for not visiting, I have made a vow that I will never overlook such a visit again. Another lesson learned.
This friend lived with intention and lived a full life even if he did die at a younger age than hoped for. His life was celebrated at his funeral service. Those who did have the courage to visit him in his last weeks spoke of a man not afraid to die and still present for his friends. He and the other mourners were convinced that his soul would live on. I can give lip service to that hope, but in truth, I have no idea of what that means or if it really means anything.
I recognize that acknowledging the projected shortness of a life span has made me more conscious of how I want to spend my time.
On my last birthday I was ninety-three years old. That is not young, of course. In fact, it is older than ninety. But age is a relative matter. If you continue to work and to absorb the beauty in the world about you, you find that age does not necessarily mean getting old. At least, not in the ordinary sense. I feel many things more intensely than ever before, and for me life grows more fascinating. Pablo Casals.
I remember being uncomfortable when my mother, in her 70’s, wanted to give some of her treasured belongings to me. I didn’t want to think of a time when she wouldn’t be there. But I know now, that she was just preparing herself to let go and I regret not being more willing to enter into that conversation with her. I’ve also learned that timing is everything in life. If you’re not ready, you’re not ready.
I’ve said for a long time that I don’t want to get to the end of my life and regret that there were things I wanted to do, but held myself back from doing out of fear. That’s proven a good motto.
As our necks become unrecognizable and our knees sag, and new brown spots appear with startling regularity, we learn that physical change (not of an adolescent nature) now, is a constant. Kindness and patience towards self is an essential requirement of aging. It’s too easy and self-destructive to be self-deprecating.
Elders are survivors.If we can, we might find a way to redefine living a relatively healthy, purposeful and satisfying older age.
It’s foolish to worship youth, they have an entirely different set of circumstances to grapple with. I wouldn’t go backwards for anything. Age can be liberating. You’ve developed a deeper understanding of pettiness, foolishness and vanity and begin to focus on the essentials. I’ve begun meditation to develop the ability to quiet my monkey mind.
Let’s get to the essence of what’s meaningful and not a useless distraction. I’m at a point in my life where I appreciate, more than ever, the wonders of nature, the joys of friendship and family, the stimulation and beauty of the arts and the pleasures that life still offers, if you’re lucky and pay attention.
Let us cherish and love old age; for it is full of pleasure if one knows how to use it. Fruits are most welcome when almost over; youth is most charming at its close; the last drink delights the toper, the glass which souses him and puts the finishing touch on his drunkenness. Each pleasure reserves to the end the greatest delights which it contains. Life is most delightful when it is on the downward slope, but has not yet reached the abrupt decline.”
― Seneca, Letters from a Stoic