Well, I’ve been busy. But I’ve also been thinking. And that means having too many things rolling around in my mind for too long without escape. This is the third escape this weekend!
Getting old is not for sissies.
If you don’t have the fortitude to handle peeing in your pants on a regular basis, to deal with shortness of breath and racing hearts and pains in places you didn’t know you had never mind places that never stop hurting, to cope with the death of your child or, maybe even worse, a grandchild, to be the last in your group of siblings and friends to still be alive, to live with grace and dignity knowing that your memory lapses are only going to worsen, then you don’t have what it takes to be old.
Aging is not what it used to be. For one thing, aging today is about getting really old. I mean, Methuselah would have felt comfortable with this group. Sixty used to be old – we consider 60 almost too young to live in our community! And with those many extra years come many extra challenges. I think, from listening to our residents, the biggest challenge is dealing with the heart. Not as an organ necessary for life, but as the centre of love. We have so many residents who are widowed, men and women who continue on without life partners, but who never stop missing them.
We have a resident here who carries around with him a picture of his late wife. When he takes it out to show you, to tell you about how warm and wonderful she was, how happy they were together, he always tells you he thinks she’s beautiful and he misses her so much, and then he kisses her photo before putting it back in his pocket. Then he tells you she died in bed one night just a few months back. He’s dying of cancer, and she’s the one whose heart simply stopped beating. He says it’s so unfair, and you have to think he might be right.
We have another resident whose husband was transferred to a secure facility several months ago because his Alzheimer’s became too much for her to deal with. She went to visit him regularly, willingly and lovingly, including last Sunday. When she came home to us, she said that it had been an excellent day. He had agreed to get dressed up in his favourite shirt and tie, they ate lunch together, they looked at photos and talked about family and friends, they said a warm and affectionate good-bye at the end of the day. That night, he fell into a coma and the next day he died.
You can’t be a sissy and deal with loss like this. It doesn’t matter that death is part of life, it’s death and it hurts and it leaves you alone at a time in your life when you most need a partner to be there.
But so many of our residents have a bravery I cannot comprehend. Perhaps it’s because they were soldiers, or sailors, or airmen during the Second World War and having that experience shellacks bravery into your heart and mind. We’ve seen some snaps of corvettes covered in ice from North Atlantic convoys. We’ve heard stories about friendship forged in fire and mud. We’ve seen photos of gallant young men and women doing their part and more, and of the families left behind to keep the home fires burning and the war machine running.
I have driven 401 from Trenton to Toronto just in front of a funeral cortege of a soldier repatriated from Afghanistan and I cherish the ideal of the Highway of Heroes even as I deplore the need for it, and weep for the loss each gathering of mournings and celebrants means. And then I see these men and women in our community, and I remember that they are also heroes and when they leave us, it will not be to travel along a flag-marked route shared in silent tribute with hundreds of other Canadians, and I weep too at this.
But in and amongst all the loss, there is hope. There is the hopefulness in making new friends, a neighbour down the hall who has a like interest in collecting porcelain or who also had a cottage in Muskoka or who is a life-long member of the Eastern Star. Or maybe you both hate prunes. Whatever the similarity, you’ve discovered it and you can build a new friendship upon it. For some members of our community, it’s even more hopeful – love is blooming! Imagine the faith and trust and hope it takes to fall in love again at age 80 or 85 or even older. I am in awe of that surety that there will be a tomorrow, that there is a reason and hope for love.
What we’re doing here is not a forever job; there are too many parts of it with which I am not comfortable as SOP, not to mention the punishing hours. But for however long we are here, these people will have forever changed me and for the good.