Every day I am compelled to stand in front of my mirror. It is a compulsion. I cannot start my day without the ritual of eye liner and rouge. However, what I can’t understand is the shock I feel each time I look.
Who is that aging old lady? And, where did the years go? Why is it a surprise that every day I see that same old lady? I keep expecting the young, vibrant face that carried the promise of years ahead in which to learn and love.
I was my grandparent’s care-giver. My mother had long ago escaped to Florida and avoided family drama. I loved and lived my loving for my wonderful grandmother and my curmudgeon of a grandfather. He died at 103 with all of his marbles. And, they were organized, and he knew how to play them.
“Take this money back to the bank and get me new bills. These are dirty.” Anything to keep me involved. I ate up his stories about his former boss who did him wrong. Pop would say, “And he got his. He’s dead now.” I would say, “Pop, they’re all dead now!”
One day, I received a call from his nurse. She told me when she went into his room that morning, he was lying naked, his hands folded across his chest. “Arthur, why are you lying that way?” He told her, “Call Paula. Tell her I’m dying today.” Anything to get my attention. So I would fly over to see him, stopping by The Viennese Cafe for oowey gooey pastry for him.
By the way, he ate red meat still bloody, smoked cigars, and ogled the women till the day he wore out.
One of my grandmothers was like a folksy sage. When people asked her age, she always told the truth. People would respond to her admission with, “You don’t look that old.” She would say, “Don’t look too close.”
Her one liners told long stories to such questions as “How are you Nan?” “Oh, I’m lying around like a dead cat.” Or you might hear her say, “I’m falling apart in all the seams.” She was a lady till the end with her bright red lipstick and colorful scarves. She never succumbed to old lady shoes or self-pity. And, if she were down, her Prozac was baking cookies. She had a tin with her wherever she went – Nana B’s signature. She “hung around” proclaiming “old age stinks” until she was 98.
My other grandmother, Rose, was all love. In her 93 years, I never knew her to be angry with anyone. She was just love. And, funny. I remember a night down the shore, where she took my sister and me for a weekend. We saw her in her nightgown and she noticed us looking at her rotund form. She said, “Did you notice how funny this night gown is shaped?”
My partner and I took dance lessons in preparation for my dear friend’s daughter’s wedding. In class, we followed behind this very large, very graceful teacher as she refreshed our memories of the fox trot. At the wedding, which was incredibly wonderful, I wore my absolute favorite dress in the world. It is peach and Asian in style with a Mandarin collar and long slit. I feel quite “lovely” in it – elegant and youthful. Our dance together on the floor demonstrated my folly. My partner had his tongue twisted in his mouth as he silently counted the steps. It struck me so funny that I couldn’t control my laughter– which made me laugh all the more.
My partner is a story unto himself. We laugh all the time with a very sad situation. He is quite deaf and is often forgetting to put his state of the art aids in. So, I speak very loudly and so does he. Our miscommunications are quite funny. At night, right next to his “good ear” I will say something benign and loving like, “I love you. Goodnight.” and he will respond as if I asked him something from an earlier conversation. (For more on this read David Lodge’s Deaf Sentence. It is hilarious and sad at the same time, as the author defines the challenge of both being someone who can’t hear and loving that someone.)
One of the nice things about being old is one’s resilience. For his 80th birthday, I took my partner to what was advertised as an apartment in Vermont – a piano a huge bonus. Our surprise was that the piano was in another space and the long flight up the stairs led to an un-air-conditioned attic – eaves and all. There was an oscillating fan which gently, periodically touched our usually naked bodies, dripping in the Northeast heat wave of a couple summers ago. We played Scrabble, laughed and loved through it all.
An outing into the woods gave us something that $6,000.00 later we were able to laugh about. My partner saw a yellow box which he assumed had trail information. He opened (literally) a hornet’s nest. They swarmed around him while my Deet protected me. He lost his hearing aid in the dirt and dead leaves somewhere in those woods.
Back in our little apartment, I found one of those critters inside my pants and my partner (a gifted scientist) heroically disembodied the thing. Actually, by the end of our vacation, we both agreed that we could have pitched a tent in the outdoors and enjoyed ourselves without the climb upstairs, sleeping on a mattress on the floor, hitting our heads on the eaves (you’d think we would have learned) and lying in bed together holding hands as we made love in the oppressive heat with our words.
My girlfriend Dee just told me that she had put her lip liner on her eyebrows. We find it more and more difficult to remember where things are located. We all talk about that – but – your eyebrows? Haven’t they always been above your eyes?
One of my dearest and best girlfriends is 94 years old. Up until now she was determined to make it to 100. She has changed that goal to 103. Blanche is who I want to be when I grow up. She is still beautiful. Dresses stunning (her outfits are from Walmart – purchased from her limited allowance.) Her daughter makes her wonderful pieces of jewelry so her accessories are quite remarkable.
Blanche lives in a tiny subsidized apartment and cleans (oh how she cleans) and cooks for herself. She watches news and is into politics. When she gets angry at the TV, she may drop the “f” bomb every so often – but – never at life or the people have who loved her. We trust each other with our deepest thoughts and I am privileged to call her “friend.” Some people have a hard time understanding the disparity of 20 years between us. For us, they don’t exist – just love and respect.
My girlfriend, Cami, is newly in love. Well, we can’t talk to her. Those hormones are raging and she looks and acts like a young girl. She just oozes joy and aliveness. Her future is looking’ good as she radiates her newfound rebirth. Joe walks on water. His step is quite lively. They are busting with their not so private secret of having found each other.
For almost 25 years we have our peer group of therapists meeting at Greg and Karen’s where we share challenging cases. Karen is our Diva singing her heart out every chance she gets. Greg, in his wheelchair supporting his tired body from progressive MS, contributes his wisdom and his quiet humor as he values every moment of life. We all do. That is the secret. Live until we can no longer live.
So while I, in my narcissism, can’t picture my world being obliterated, I am making the most of what I have left. The wrinkles are testimonials to the years of hard-won wisdom. My love has grown so big and is hard to contain in my little, now shrinking body. My work remains my joy. My family, though tiny in numbers, accepts me as the verbally effusive embodiment of gratitude.
It is still hard for me to move through my home, taking in all of my accumulated tschotkis from a world of travel and relationships, knowing it will all be tossed aside once my remains are slid into an oven. My friend Andy says that my home is me. I think it is true.
When I am gone, there will be pieces of jewelry left to my closest friends and clothing that make getting up and dressing every morning fun. There will be files, books, and writings which will all be tossed. Yet they were all me – aspects of who I was/am at any moment in time. I am grateful for all of it.
My most important learning after years of trying is that not everyone will “get” you, or like you. So to try to turn yourself into what everyone wants from you is an exhausting and impossible task. So, I am me in all of my authenticity. I never lie. So far it hasn’t cost me anything to tell the truth. My legacy to each of my clients and those who care to know me is to speak your truth from your heart. So I do that. And, people will believe what fits them to believe.
It’s hard for me to know that one day I will not be here. Neither me nor the deep feelings with which I live. I will be gone.
So, when I look into that mirror tomorrow morning, I will crinkle those lined lips upwards into a smile. I have yet another day to live and to love. My mandate is to go on counseling others so that they, too, can live with the courage of who they are and to know how to truly love – themselves and their lives.
My researcher is at his standing desk, researching, writing, and planning a presentation to a university in Germany. We take time for hugs and then return to what feeds us – our families, our work.
So, who laughs last? I guess I won’t be around to hear. But then, who really cares? It’s all been worth it. Wrinkles, adversity, fun, loss, loves, money, no money. It’s all in a lifetime and then we are no more.
I still can’t figure who that old lady is in that mirror but I sure as hell know who I am. I am the sum of all my moments and of all the people who have peopled my life. And, I’m going to keep on keeping on, until I can no longer.