Sunday, August 15, 2010

Age and Aging

As happens more and more often these days, two different things occurred this morning that have joined together and fused into a single idea within my brain. First, I was reading a book called Understanding Death by John Hatcher, and then I happened to see a magazine cover that had the headline "Can we overcome aging?"

The combination of these two things so early in the day got me wondering: Do we really see age as an illness that needs curing? I understand that there are many ways by which we can age more easily and maintain our health longer, but still, do we regard age, in general, as an illness?

Aging, to be sure, is the growth of the body, naturally resulting from our passage through time. As we age, the inherent weaknesses of our physical shell are exposed. We may repair the occassional part that wears out, or even breaks, but as we do so, other parts are continuing to wear down, or erode, as it were.

There is a delightful story in Hatcher's book in which he describes triplets in a womb exploring their universe. The story ends quite poignantly with them dying, as they get "eaten by the universe". We would call it birth, but they don't know that. And from their perspective the story would appear to end on a very sad note. From our perspective, on this side of the uterine wall, we can only laugh because we know what comes next.

Oh, here's an aside: My mother-in-law has this odd desire to have a near-death experience. I can understand it, but still find it odd. One of her other desires was to swim with dolphins, and my wife and I were able to help her experience that. So during this visit, she once again expressed her longing to be able to have this experience. I said, "Well, that's easy", and stuck my arms out as if to choke her. After we all laughed at that, I said, "Yeah, I can just imagine it. Oops, I went too far." Again we all laughed at that. And then someone said, "That would be too near a death experience." Someone else responded, "Hey, near is near. You never said which side of death." Anyways, that's only a silly aside. Now back to our regularly scheduled blog.

Today, here where I live, many of us, including the elderly, view aging and the aged as sick or ugly. Our desire is to shut them away and keep them out of sight. We tend to forget the wisdom that is acquired through the years, dismissing it as obsolete or outdated. We are so caught up in the excitement of the "new" and sold on the latest gadgets that we forget about the value of that which lasts.

More and more often, I hear of children who are not willing to sit still to hear a story read to them. They want to see the movie, instead. When you read a book, you have to do some of the work. You must read the words yourself, or sit still and listen to them. You have to provide the imagination to visualize the story in front of you. Not so with a movie. It's all there for you to absorb.

The pace of a movie can be much faster than that of a book, because you can see images and process them faster than you can process words.

In short, spoken stories are not as exciting as the latest blockbuster. (The only exception to that rule that I can think of is the horror story around a campfire.)

If we could somehow figure out how to distill the wisdom of the elders into a few soundbytes and an occassional explosion scene, then maybe we would value their stories more. But the truth is that our lives are not lived at the pace of a Hollywood character. And thank God for that, too. Yet it seems that because of this, we tend to undervalue the importance of these personal tales.

Back in Winnipeg, there is a dear woman there, by the name of Edna, who used to write down her stories for me and then give them to me each week when we saw each other. I treasure these written pieces. One of my desires is to type them all up and send them to her before she passes away. As she just celebrated her 99th birthday, I better get a move on it. Edna, for what it is worth, got her university degree a few years ago. She began university when she was in her late 60s and 30 years later they awarded her an honorary degree. Good for her. Oh, she called me over one day and asked me to come by and look at her ankle. As this was a fairly odd request (after all, I'm no physician, I mean I can recognize an ankle and all that, but that's about it), I went over, either expecting something really serious, or someone really delerious. Serious or delerious, I wasn't sure which would be better. Well, I got there and her ankle was super swollen. When I asked her what happened, she said that she had been hit by a car the day before. "What? How?" She was crossing the street to go to her university class when a car came around the corner and "knocked her on her bum". The police came. She made her report, got up and walked to her class. I took her to a hospital and found out that she had broken her foot, along with a couple of ribs. All this in her late 80s! She isn't just a woman. She's a tank. And I love her dearly.

But the reason I mention all of this is to highlight the fact that her stories are very valuable. She has shared with me, and anyone else who will listen, many stories of how she survived various hardships in her life.

My Grandpa Dubey was another one. As a young child, when he would come over to our home for the weekend, he would take me in his room and sit me next to him on his bed. I looked forward to this because he always bribed me with a bag of candy.  But I would sit quietly and listen to his stories, over and over. He passed away when I was about 7 years old, and I, unfortunately, don't remember any of the stories. Now that I think about it, I should ask my Mom and my siblings to see if they recall any of his stories. Even though I don't remember any of them, I know they tremendously impacted my life.

But one sad thing I do remember is when my grandmother, "Gramma" Eve, had suffered a stroke. I went to visit her in the seniors home where she was undergoing physio, and let's just say that she wasn't doing all that well. It was a very short time later that she passed away, but I didn't know that at the time.

Anyways, there we were, she doing her physio and me watching. She wasn't responding all that well and she was obviously very tired. Finally, after trying to get her to do something, and her not doing it, the nurse lifted her up and held her in front of a full-length mirror. "Do you want your grandson to see you like this?"

I could see the defeat in Gramma's eyes, and the tears begin to well up.

I walked over to her, and gently put my arms around her shoulders to support her. "It's ok", I said, "Is she done for now?" She was, so I supported her back to her wheel chair.

I took her outside to the garden and leaned over to whisper in her ear. "It's ok, Gramma. You know I love you. This body isn't important. It's you that I care about. You do whatever you need to do, and I'll love you all the same."

For a brief moment she had believed the nurse. She thought that I would somehow think less of her because her body was nearing its end. I like to recall the very different tears in her eyes after our whispered words, and treasure the knowledge that she knew that I saw the real her.

You see, we lose enough when we age. We lose some of our abilities. We often lose friends. Many of us lose our memories. There is too much that we lose. We don't need to add to it. We don't have to also take away people's dignity and honour.

No. Instead, we need to recognize that when the inessential stuff is gone, what is left is a precious distillation. And that we should treasure.

After all, it is that essence that we carry with us to the next world.

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