Today a gentleman friend wisely noted that the greatest challenge to our value and identity comes not in the beginning when we are still fighting and figuring out who we will be when we grow up, but comes when the tide has turned and the waters of our life are receding.
Who are we really, when we have more memories than dreams? Who are we when our children and community are too busy to make time for us because they see us as non-essentials? Who are we when our skills are outdated or our bodies no longer capable of tasks? Who are we when our words are too slow or jumbled so our voices are ignored? Who are we when our bodies fail us and the first two things we learn to control as children, intake and output, are dictated by weak bladder muscles, swollen prostates, neural damage, diabetes or a heart condition? Who are we in a world where value is measured by all the externals of beauty and career success? Who are we when we are alone in our bedrooms with no job to get up for, no spouse to hear snore, nothing or no one who really needs us anymore?
If I have learned anything in the last seven years, it has been my own version of that truth.
It has actually been longer than seven years that I have wrestled with serious illness, but surgery, medication and more surgery bought me almost a decade of normalcy. Then it was another five years, then three and then the miracles of recovery and therefore the gaps between grew smaller and shorter. The last few years have been like driving down the eastern seaboard with the last light of one health crisis barely lost in my rear view mirror when the flashes of the next round of tests and treatments would appear in my windshield. This last half of my fifties have been hard.
Luckily my childhood adolescence was no family sitcom, and what my Father knew best would still be censored on all but Cinemax and HBO, so I was a bit more prepared for hardship than a sheltered well fed child of privilege. I already knew how to live on a prayer and still have a song in my heart. I already knew that it wasn’t what I had but what I could do for others that really mattered. I had a high pain tolerance and knew that anyone could leave at anytime. I never remember a time that I believed the world was fair, still I believed my life story would always have a happy ending.
I worked hard in spite of illnesses or setbacks. I did my best for my children, my friends, my country, even strangers. By 55 I had completed everything on my 30 something bucket list including traveling the world and my dream job- nursing. After a lifetime of meandering different paths with a compass of compassion, I even found my spiritual direction. I skillfully surfed all the ups and downs faced be every great protagonist right up until January, when the story forever changed.
And here I am now, the tide going out, while I try to swim to shore, or at least remember how to float.
I fell twice today and I am looking for a place to live without stairs and someone to check in on me. I use a walker and shower chair and constantly forget what day it is or what I was just doing. It takes 10 times as long to write a blog entry and I have learned to save each paragraph instead of 5 pages at a time. Where once word predictive software was irritating, and grammar prompts annoying, both now are necessary. What is in my mind doesn’t seem to want to come out of my mouth or onto paper. And sometimes , all that is in my mind now is a nice billowy cloud of float.
The toughest part for me is figuring out who “I” am as my “I” fades from my cognition as surely as sight does with glaucoma.
But the second toughest is the insurance and finances. I worked hard. I always paid taxes. Social Security payments came out from every check since my first job in 1973. I had long-term disability insurance, and I am a veteran. So I thought I would be OK at this age. But I am not. I fell twice on the stairs today because I have No money to buy a four prong cane so I just made do. I hate needing help, but even more, I hate asking for help.
I thought that getting to be an adult, working just as hard at the stop-gap labor as I did at the job of my dreams, being a good person, meant I would never have to be here again; Here as in my growing dependence on the kindness of others. I really thought that this time this year I would finally be hiking the AT in solitude all strong, Ms. Independent.
Actually, there were a lot of times I didn’t think I would ever be this age so I am grateful for every moment I still get to have, however I’m certainly much too young to be this old. Guess its like Indiana Jones said, it’s not just my years, it’s my mileage.
I have saved other lives, strangers as well as patients. Yet here I am, going to doctors, fighting with insurance companies and begging on the internet.
What a life. Still, I believe this life will have a happy ending.
“They used to tell me I was building a dream
And so I followed the mob
When there was earth to plow or guns to bear
I was always there right on the job
Once I built a tower up to the sun
Brick and rivet and lime
Once I built a tower, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?”
I have truly received far more than dimes this last few months. From strangers and friends and family I am lifted up again and again. When I forget, they remind me who I really am. A thousand hands handing me love and a lot more than a dime.