Mama has never been a particularly social person. Like me, she doesn’t (or shouldn’t) attempt to engage strangers in conversation the way it comes so naturally to some people. Recently, however, she twice tried to be someone she is not; I don’t know why. Maybe I should admire her for the attempt; but it didn’t go well.
On one of her good days we were walking loops at the small Lewis County Mall (which is mostly county offices now; the only stores are Sears and a scary “outdoor” store, a euphemism for hunting store, with dead animals on the walls and a T-shirt in the front display with the Starbucks logo emblazoned on the front with the words “I love coffee and guns” that’s been there for two years). Mama pushes one of the Sears carts on her walks there. The stability enables her to walk a modicum faster, when she feels like it.
We were into our fourth lap that day, and she was thrilled with her endurance in contrast to previous days. The second time we lapped a woman walking slowly with a cane, Mama decided she needed to connect with her, tell her she knew a technique that surely would be helpful. She got in the other woman’s personal space and said loudly, “Hi Lady! I push a cart when I walk so I can go faster.” The woman slowly turned her head toward Mama with that deer-in-the-headlights look on her face. She didn’t respond and I nudged Mama to move on. The woman’s husband, who had been resting on a bench, joined her for the rest of her exercise—protection from the scary woman with the shopping cart.
This week I took her to a clothing store to look at jackets. An elderly woman was buying shoes with her loud and chatty daughter. I told the daughter, at her query, my mother was 98. She had her mother beat, I was informed; she was just 96 and getting ready to go to Florida or Arizona or one of those sunny places for the winter. I passed on the information to Mama who was straining to hear, and she again got in the woman’s space and said loudly, “I hope you are still enjoying life.” The woman’s reaction was the same as that of the woman in the mall. Ah, and now I understand the daughter’s giddiness: her mother was probably going to spend the winter in the care of another child.
I wonder at Mama’s question now. Was she implying that she still enjoys life? Because she sure doesn’t give any indication that she is.
Also this week, a friend who cares for both her parents while working full time and is understandably exhausted, sent me an article from the The Atlantic. The author, Ezekiel Emanuel, wrote 5000 words on “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” I was near death by the time I finished reading it.
I daresay the majority of those of us caring for an elderly parent are anxious both not to burden our own children with caregiving, and not to become one of the living dead. As I have said many times, my mother and her caregiver children are lucky. Mama is, in many ways, still independent and still under the impression that she is in control of her fiefdom—which is a challenge to those of us caring for her, but that story has been written many times in this blog.
It’s easy for an exhausted caregiver to opine on when they want to die so as not to be a burden to themselves or others. Old age, and all that means, is in our face every single day. And, in spite of my mother’s relative good health, I can tell you now I do not want to live as long as she has. That said, I think the author of the article misses the mark in some of his declarations. He wants to die before he is diminished. And he has decided that will hit at 75.
First, who can possibly know the age at which health and abilities will start downhill? (In many ways it began decades ago.) And who decides what diminishment means? And why is that a bad thing? What would a society in which everyone dies just over the apex of the hill be like? What about the wisdom that can only be accessed when one is finished being “productive” (whatever the hell that means) and has the opportunity to reflect and share what they have learned (hopefully beyond how to load the dishwasher)? I think we would, as a society, be diminished without our elders.
The author admits he isn’t going to step in front of a train at 75, he just doesn’t want anyone to be sorry if he doesn’t become a nonagenarian. I have no aspirations to be the person to live the longest in my family: the bar is too high with an uncle who is 104 and many relatives on both sides of the family who are living or did live well into their 90s. I don’t want to be kept alive solely to wring out as many years as possible. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to die at 75, but I hope not to. I wish my father had had more years, but I think 79 was a good time for him, so I try not to be sad.
And what about medical tests and when to stop them? I agree with the author on that point, too. When my doctor told me at my annual physical last week the recommendation now is for women to stop having pap tests at 65, I was thrilled. Just three more! And yes, one more invasive colonoscopy is just fine. I’ll be nearly 70 and I will take my chances after that. I will continue to have flu shots, which the author says he will never have. That’s just stupid.
Choose an age to hope to die though? Not possible. I want to die when I can no longer adapt to age-related change. At 57, the author has decided when he can’t climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, as he recently did, it’s time to die; if that’s what he believes, maybe he’s right. I will be sad when I can no longer hike, but I anticipate I will still enjoy looking at the mountain and sitting by the lake. I want to go when life gets too hard to enjoy (and I think Mama has been there for a while). It will be time when I can no longer be reasonably independent; before I am negatively affecting the lives of my children; when I am dreading what the next day might hold. That could be next year, it could be three decades yet.
The author concludes, ” I want to celebrate my life while I am still in my prime.” I want to live as long as I can celebrate my life.
(PS: I chose my socks in the photo below to match my grandson’s pants, not my own shirt. Really, it was intentional; I’m not fashion diminished. Really.)