I’ve always had this odd affinity for old people. Part of it may be due to the fact that my parents always seemed old, marrying late in life. I used to joke they were probably even born old. But I digress.
The more likely emotional connection was that I would someday be old myself. Try as I might, when watching the elderly stumble along, forget a word or phrase, begin to experience broken parts – hip replacements, strokes, cancer, heart attacks, even simply creaky arthritic joints – it was merely an idea, a concept, not any sort of actual experience I could remotely image until, that is, I began to experience it myself.
It is an odd thing when it sneaks up on you. First, older siblings begin to show signs and symptoms of aging. Oddly, this allowed me to maintain a certain deniability about it ever arriving in my body. But once it began leaking into my own body, at first a subtle thrum with a few wrinkles or graying hair, it began to pick up speed. Sure, you can eat healthier for a time, exercise more, stay fit, etc. Yet, there is a limit one can do before really being forced to accept that this body, your body, is slowly breaking down. Even Jack Lalanne underwent the drying wrinkled husk. Ditto, Richard Simmons.
WORSHIPING AT THE ALTAR OF YOUTH
In a way, there’s a kind of comfort, a liberation that takes place, once you surrender to it. For most of us, that takes some getting used to. And of course, some aging folks never really do, becoming obsessed with hair dyes, wrinkle creams, tummy tucks, and face lifts. After all, our culture worships youth and has a very hard time respecting aging, let alone the wisdom it can yield.
Why this topic, why now? As I approach my 65th birthday, not only is it the whole social security and medicare life stage having its way with me, which I liken to an out-of-body experience, but also specific ailments and body parts are being compromised. I’ve had some cartilage – is that the right word? – diminution in both hips, as well as osteoporosis. Then, recently, I have been the lucky winner of a MOHS procedure for a skin cancer on my leg. Yes, yes, I know these are considered ‘routine’, maybe even commonplace but not for me. My dermatologist even described them as ‘nuisance’. Easy for him to say. Context is everything, isn’t it? It can often be the difference between statistics and actual fact poking out of your shin!!
For the MOHS, they give you a local, then they cut, and again, until all cancer cells are removed presenting clean margins. In my case, the nasty patch on my leg is not a very friendly location. Once the surgeon was done with his little scalpel but before suturing, I sat up to look at the hole. Who’s leg is that? It seemed bizarre that it could be mine. In a strange way it was kind of fascinating, a curiosity when I think of it as ‘a leg’ and not ‘my leg’. How personally attached I had previously been to it until seeing it from a different perspective.
And then, of course, the doc stitched me up, the nurse bandaging me before sending me off with my three pages of wound care instructions. Well, I’m here to tell you, it got personal pretty quick once the anesthesia wore off. Then, after 48 hours I had my first wound cleaning and bandaging to do by myself. Oh dear Then there was the hobbling around, keeping the leg elevated, more wound care, pain, subsequent fright upon some bleeding, and off I was in what can best be described as the worry-go-round.
WORRY YOUR WAY BACK
Now I am a worrier from way back. My dad was a worrier and I’m betting,his dad before him! Besides giving me a self-obsessed mental drama game to play in my head, I have some perverse idea I can control an outcome through worry. Yes, yes, I know it’s a symptom of ego, self-absorption, part of the human condition, but it is deleterious to one’s health. I’m sure it’s aged me even more than normally, having dumped massive amounts of catecholamines into my bloodstream, racing to knock off what few functioning brain cells I have left!
In any case, this little MOHS experience is minor compared to my oldest sister’s seven (Yes, 7!!!) fractures that spontaneously occurred in about three months due to severe osteoporosis. Another sister immediately my junior by 15 months, has been struggling with knee problems, a kidney disorder, cardiac issues, and other conditions. Our brother has been diabetic for a good number of years now. Being 12 years older than I, it has always been easier to blow it off as ‘well, he’s older’ even when he was first diagnosed.
All this is to say, the body breaking down is such a simple idea, a mental construct relegated to other people until you start to experience it yourself. It is the experience itself that sobers you up, making it really, really real. It’s only a mentation until you realize you’ll have to give up the whole thing someday–the whole thing being the body, and that pesky mentation along with it. Naturally, all that gets to not just the inevitability of leaving the body altogether but also being forced to recontextualize what you think you are.
The What of Me
Now I know I’m a spiritual being. There is an angle of experience that is only lived from the inside, from the heart, and I would go so far as to say, the all of life, regardless of the mental contortions we entertain ourselves with to the contrary. The intellect tries to tell us otherwise, and while the intellect is a useful tool, so handy in making our way around the physical world, it is the heart, driven by spirit that throws back its head, laughing at the inevitability of casting the body aside someday. It’s almost as if we know but pretend we don’t, thinking all that neuronal firepower we’ve been blessed with, is us, and only us. Ah, the arrogance of it all.
You tell me; if you’ve ever watched a slow leak of someone’s life whether from Alzheimer’s, cancer, coronary artery disease or something else, who is it you say goodby to when you have really loved them. The body? I think not. The body is merely the delivery system of the being gazing back at you. In the deepest parts of ourselves, weknow this. The unmeasurable quality of our essence is communicated with a language that defies words. We get glimpses of it when we first love someone and that love matures. For those of us who have had children, that initial recognition of a newborn overwhelms. So too, does the look of the dying. It is a palpable thing. Not Newtonian. Not linear. Not physical.
I used to hate the phrase “passed on” in lieu of death. It’s actually more accurate then “died”, unless of course, you believe in no God, no creator, nor Source, no Power greater than yourself. Anyway, imaging our own physical expiration is no more real to us than when we were young thinking about the idea of getting old. All of life has to be experienced, subjectively, to really know it–from arthritic hips, to MOHS procedures, to heart attacks to taking the last breath.
So slouching towards the ever increasing disintegration of body parts I tromp, experiencing with equal parts fascination and shock until such time as the air has completely left the tire. For the time being, however, I’ve got my leg wound to tend to.