Last night’s post was a bit melancholy. I appreciate the friends who stopped to notice and, sometimes, in their kind ways, challenge the perspective that our bodies belong most to us when they are broken or failing. It is a perspective I have adopted from time to time. I realized this morning that I have written about this before (Meeting Our Biological Selves).
Last night’s post became something very different than what I had expected to write. Sometimes we get surprised and instead of writing the thing we think we want, we write the thing we find we need.
I have been spending a lot of time in a nursing home. My wife’s grandmother landed there about a month ago, and she is slowly settling into a permanent stay. As I walk the halls, it is impossible for me to imagine the people there as their once healthy, vibrant and vital selves. They are withered, tired and defeated. Some are crippled, legless and locked into chairs. Others are planted deep in their beds. The televisions bleat. And from the rooms, you hear coughs and cries. Whimpering pleas for some non-specific deliverance.
It isn’t all gloom. There is the grandmother’s kind roommate who wants share her enormous bag of candy with everyone she meets. There is the man in the wheelchair who gives out ink pens with a missionary’s zeal. There is the toothless woman who flirts with the male nurse and enjoys trying to make him blush.
Even in this place, life goes on.
I have watched my wife’s grandmother confront the terms of own life. She wants to die. She is ready to die, but she is not yet dead. And so, for her, this home is a waiting place. The worst kind of waiting room. She has no idea how long she will be kept waiting. She is not a patient person. When the Reaper arrives, he will have much to answer for.
And this loss that we are watching is so different from the losses that have gone before. We have watched as this vital woman has been reduced, her scope of focus and influence narrowed by concentric degrees. Her life was bound up in her family. And then in her house. And in her living room and bedroom. And her bed and a chair. And now, a bed.
And her focus has narrowed. No longer watching the news or Judge Judy or the Family Feud. She thinks only of her body. She dreams of walking and wakes up falling out of bed. She measures time in bowel movements and the next scheduled pill. Her thoughts circle around discomforts and inconveniences.
And so it is that I have been thinking about the arc of a person’s life. And how, when we are born, we focus entirely on learning to master the rules of our body so we can navigate our place in the world. And as the art of incarnation becomes second nature, how we begin to forget ourselves and our bodies until interrupted by some desire, some pain or some need. And how it is, before we die, we return to ourselves and our bodies. How the attention we used to cast around us turns inward and we sweep every corner and every shadow inside.
I ponder this and try to be brave. It is melancholy, perhaps, but it is not morose or defeated. I am studying the art of loss and wondering if I will have half the courage of some of these people when my own time arrives.
I think, perhaps, that is the hopeful metaphor I was trying to reach last night. That we are all brave explorers locked into our suits of flesh, restlessly wandering and exploring until our expedition is at an end.
I do not dwell on the end itself. When it comes, it will come. I just want to be brave and watchful and bear witness as honestly and kindly as I can. And when my own body becomes my whole world, I hope I can count it a kind of triumph that I did not fail it before it failed me.
And so my thanks to those who feel kinship with this brief moment of observation. My apologies to those who feel disturbed by the things they have seen. It is only in discomfort that we are awakened. It is only in awakening that we are alive.
I often think my Dad was the lucky one, leaving his failing body in his fifties. He was an active man increasingly irked by dodgy knees, and to be reduced to living in a broken body with only his memories would have devestated him (and me). Much as I miss him terribly, and wish he’d lived to meet his grandchildren, I’m happy for him – and us – that his suffering was shortlived. Old age holds little appeal for me.
I don’t know. I live so much of my life inside my head, I sometimes wonder if I could adjust to those limits so long as I could still read, watch and converse. It is about participating in your own life. Once you can’t participate, the body becomes a trap. My mom-in-law was the same way. Best not to linger.