Sunday, November 11, 2012

Becoming my grandmother

A few days ago I was sitting in the waiting area at a medical facility with several other women. All of us were clinging to the flimsy hospital gowns that we had wrapped around our upper bodies as we waited to be called in for mammograms or bone density scans.

A woman with knee-high shiny black boots and jet black hair cut in an asymmetrical bob was fussing with her iPhone. Another woman wearing Birkenstocks and with long wild grey hair was knitting. I just sat there, observing and trying to maintain some dignity in an awkward situation. The knitting woman looked up at me and chuckled. “Isn’t it crazy what we women have to put up with?” she asked. “As we get older we just keep suffering one indignity after the other. The other day my granddaughter asked me what it felt like to be so old and I told her . . . “

Just then the mammogram technician called the knitting woman’s name. She smiled at me, grabbed her bag, and left without finishing her story. I wanted to know what she told her granddaughter.

I got no insights into aging from my grandmothers. Both of my grandmothers died before I knew enough to ask them what it felt like to be old. My maternal grandmother died of breast cancer when she was only 49. As the first-born of her grandchildren I was fortunate to have known her. None of my siblings or cousins remembers her. At the age of 49 she seemed ancient to me. She was round and matronly and she wore house dresses and sensible shoes. She bought me a child-size pie pan and taught me how to bake apple pie. She was exactly what a grandmother should be and I loved her. But from my current vantage point, the age of 49 seems so young. It shocks me that I am now 65, so much older than my grandmother was when she died.

And my mother. My mother is nearly 87 now. I am watching her transition from being an active senior to being an old, old woman. She is getting shorter and shorter. She is hunched and she has trouble walking. She can hardly hear, even with hearing aids, and she is becoming increasingly confused. My father, her husband for nearly 65 years, died two years ago and her friends are dying. I talk to my mother nearly every day and often spend the day with her, taking her to doctors’ appointments or out to run errands. Occasionally she will say something about aging, but the words never seem to come out as a grain of wisdom. She just shakes her head and says she never thought she would live so long.

So I have no advice, no wisdom to pass down from the generations before me. What words will I find to answer if one of my granddaughters asks me how it feels to be old? Do I frighten her, make her afraid to grow old? Should I lie, sugar coat it by reciting some pious platitudes about aging that are a bunch of poppycock? (I’m 65 now so I’m entitled to use the word poppycock.) “You’re only as old as you feel.” “Come grow old with me, the best is yet to come.” Oh, gag me.

The knitting woman has a point—yes, we do give up things as we age. It’s hard to lose strength and stamina. It’s hard to witness your own sagging skin, diminishing vision and hearing, thinning hair, and thickening body. It’s hard to consider the fact that I’m well over halfway through my life and that I may one day be dependent on someone else for my care. And how can the dear friends from my youth be old women now?

I might tell my granddaughter that growing old is rather funny. I look at myself now and I’m shocked. And I have to laugh. It’s some sort of trick Mother Nature has played on me. Mother Nature is slowly replacing me with a version of my grandmother. Inside I have an image of myself that’s a young woman. I see myself as I looked the day I got married—just 20 years old, full of spunk, full of life and promise, rapturously happy because I was marrying the love of my life. The love of my life is gone and my body doesn’t look the same, but that 20-year-old bride is still who I am. Inside I’m a girl, a young woman. I hold all of that girl’s memories, fears, likes, and dislikes in my heart. The secret is that I look old, but I’m not. That's just plain funny.

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