The chapter heading ~ Finding Wholeness As Our Bodies Break Down ~ IS the very essence of Mom’s experience inching upward toward triple digits. At 90, she wrote – “As the years tick by and my fixtures and fittings become unglued and the ‘fur’ is loved off, a stronger sense of being Real has moved forward.” Am quite sure she would have written out the Maya Angelou quote that kicks off the chapter – “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” – to keep on her night stand.
Rabbi Friedman is in italics, my comments (or Mom’s) in regular font:
While we cannot realistically dream of escaping physical limitations or suffering as we grow older, we can hope for wholeness. … Just as we can grow to appreciate the preciousness of each stage of the rose, we can come – with effort – to greater peace with our aging bodies. – – I’ll let Mom take this... “A favorite saying of mine for many moons is ‘Old age ain’t for sissies.’ Actually, managing to get to 90 relatively sound of heart, mind and body (or any one or more of those three) indicates some grit. As I inch closer toward triple digits, being old has gotten a lot easier. Somewhere around my late 80s, I began to see the humor and humanity more in things, to take upsets less personally and put them more easily into perspective.”
The spiritual teacher Ram Dass, who suffered a devastating stroke in his sixties, works to great each pain or physical discomfort with tender compassion, saying, “Ah, so, even this.” – – Handing it again to Mom… “For whatever reason, growing feeble, infirm and even forgetful is part of the Lord’s grand scheme.”
We can try contemplative practice to help us be with a pain or soreness, opening to what exactly the experience is like instead of bracing ourselves against it. – – Yep, back to Mom… “Moving out of that hanging-on state to one of accepting that the body is a temporary shelter designed to house our eternal soul could be compared to moving out of darkness and confusion toward lightness and the light.”
We are more than our bodies. … What may help us is to let go of anger at ourselves, or at aging itself, and honor our bodies for doing as best it can under the circumstances. This letting go may need to happen again and again as our bodies and abilities continue to change. – – More Mom…. “Ideally, the concepts of physical being, of time and relationships, are liberated as we get older and older.”
It may help us as well to turn our attention toward others who are suffering, to use our own experience of pain to develop empathy and connection. – – So much of Mom’s life focused on putting her attention toward others. In the mid-1950s, Mom had a nervous breakdown & was hospitalized for over a month, undergoing every sort of horrific “treatment” that was the norm back then; unlike other people of her day, who would have never talked about it, even with close friends, Mom was open about what brought her to that point, helped countless people by talking about her experiences, letting others know what brought her to breaking – her refusal to seek or let others help with two family medical emergencies that piled on, one after another. ~ When her youngest son was killed, Mom got through it in part by putting her focus on his best friend, who was with him when it happened, and on his family. From that tragedy on, if a friend lost a child, Mom was among the first to show up to comfort & just be present. ~ In her last weeks, Mom’s hospital rooms were centers of good humor, interesting conversation & healing peace for the hospital personnel. She gave as much comfort to the friends & family who came to see her at INOVA/Alexandria, then at St. Mary’s & finally at home as they gave to her. ~ Mom’s greatest desire was that each connection be reciprocal & she did all she could to make it so.
We live in a culture that lionizes activity, productivity, and independence. … We have accepted the notion that our worth is determined by our level of activity or by what we generate. – – And we are back to Mom… “The changes that come with old age are scary, especially changes in life roles. I have not enjoyed the hands-on role of wife for over 26 years. At ninety, I cannot even manage the role I played as a parent. The resources just are not there. I cannot provide massive emotional or even minor financial support. I cannot wash a floor or do the grocery shopping or even dust my own room. (I can still shell hard boiled eggs and clean mushrooms!)”
In contrast, Jewish tradition teaches that our worth is not conditioned by any external measure. We humans are ultimately worthy simply because we are beings created in the divine image. – – Mom… “Growing old, even some of the sadder aspects of it, is part of the Lord’s grand scheme. Let go of time-bound prejudices and fears of growing older.”
As Ram Dass observes, limits and fatigue “may … be a message to attend to the moment – to be with it … to taste it … to embrace it, a way of making us take time, finally to see what’s here now.” – – Mom… “Today. my body constantly clues me in that it is merely temporary. It is breaking down. That is in the order of things, however rotten it is to experience. … Lots of things I loved to do are just memories. Instead of gearing up into depression over what is no longer, I find it simpler to shift perspective.”
So, what can we hope for? We can hope for healing … for the capacity to feel whole even when the body that carries us is broken. – – Who else? Mom, of course… “Whoever is ME is changing so fast it is hard to keep up at times. It feels like more is bubbling up to the surface than ever before – well, since I fell in love, married and became a mom for the first time.”
As our bodies experience the illness and decline that are normal elements of aging, we can strive to expand our field of vision – – remaining awake to the present moment but also seeing beyond the moment and beyond ourselves. – – Letting Mom have the last word… “Dependency has not turned out to be as bad as I thought it would be. There is a wonderful passage from the book Still Here that expresses my experience over the past year – “When there is true surrender and service between people, the roles of helper and helped, and the boundaries between those in power and those who are powerless, begin to dissolve.” That has been my experience with my daughter and son-in-law and with, it seems, most of the other people in my life – the boundaries have begun to dissolve.”
It may seem lazy of me, letting Mom respond instead of me (how astonished she’d be), but it’s pretty amazing that someone who was THERE can share her experiences. Thank you, Rabbi Friedman, for this special way to reconnect with the amazing Katharine Reynolds Lockhart (aka Mom).