I have a client who’s almost ninety-five and recently, she’s been having a lot of trouble moving from one chair to another. She has trouble standing up from her seat on the couch, trouble shifting her tiny center of gravity so she doesn’t topple over, trouble turning around to sit on the seat of her walker so I can wheel her across the room to where her dinner waits for her on the table. “Oh, boy…” she says over and over to herself and to me, “Oh, wow.” And when she has trouble I stand there beside her, one hand on her back and one hand on her walker to stabilize each, having trouble right along with her. The whole operation is fraught with peril.
I didn’t used to know this, I don’t think, but the great fear of the aged is not death—death looks relatively friendly to most folks in their eighties and nineties. The great fear of the aged is of isolation, of confusion, of falling, of no longer being able to see to read, of forgetting, of not being able to reach the phone or (especially) the toilet when you need them, of the embarrassment of soiling your sheets in the morning and having someone come in to clean you up.
Their fears are not lofty. They are normal and average and small and continually recurring, like most of yours and most of mine.
I realized a few days ago that, perhaps unsurprisingly considering my current job, I’ve been thinking about these basic rhythms and anxieties of old age for quite a while now. I decided back in December to move home to Greensboro come this summer, and while there were a whole host of factors influencing that decision, I think that this has been one of them.
It’s hard to explain, perhaps. I can very easily walk across a room unassisted and I expect to be able to do so for decades and decades to come. Yet every time Phyllis struggles to stand, to balance her hip bones over her foot bones, I feel an odd shivering kinship with her. It’s not compassion or even pity exactly; it’s awareness of the arc of a human life, that eventually bones settle down and calcify into dust, often while the person attached to those bones continues to live—continues to eat, sleep, defecate, carry on a conversation. I suppose I am tasting and touching and witnessing all the realities of human embodiment and place.
Not coincidentally, I’ve finally been re-reading Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, at a very gradual pace. And while Jayber himself and Berry’s need for a more ruthless editor still annoy the bejeezus out of me at least a third of the time, the man knows how to be a human in a place, how to plant his feet in the soil his flesh will return to and live a whole life from a single spot. I’ve always found that idea compelling, but I think I might’ve forgot it for a while. It’s good to be reminded.
Anyway. This year has been a valuable detour—a gift in many ways, difficult in others, often both. I suspect it’ll continue to be all those things. I’m here for a few more months. But it makes a great deal of sense to me to take my thirty-year-old self back to the place where I was born, where I grew up full of aches and pains and joys, where I taught and learned, and dig my heels deep and make plans to be an old lady there someday.
Plans can change, I know. But you’ve got to choose something. And perhaps it doesn’t really matter where you spend your final years, or any of your years. Wherever you are at the end of your life, you’re likely to have an over-cheerful caregiver who natters on loudly to you about the plot of The Truman Show as she pulls up your Depends like I did to Phyllis just the other day. But, then again, perhaps it does mean something to walk the same ground over and over for a whole life long in different sized shoes till you can walk no longer. I very much hope so.