I could try to ignore the loss—thicken my makeup, get a tummy tuck, pretend I wasn’t losing names and dates—but I haven’t chosen to go that route. In fact, I rarely wear makeup. I tell myself that the face in the mirror looks wise. Maybe. Or maybe it just looks faded. At any rate, I’m not trying to hold back an inevitable tide.
The changes are not all bad. Whether or not I am actually wise, I have learned many things. I tutor Mexican immigrants (legal and illegal) in English and use my years of teaching to find the best ways to help them learn. It comes much easier than when I was a teacher starting out. And I have won through to a peaceful life. I wouldn’t be 31 again for anything—such melodrama!
But there is this slow decline that draws my attention. Arthritis makes it hard to hike and impossible to backpack, and it cuts my sesshins down to four days. Pain is a constant. Aging and death are often in my mind, like a loose tooth the tongue wiggles. So I use it, grist for the mill.
Let it go, I tell myself, practice for letting harder things go. You forgot your friend’s name? Let your embarrassment go. My body has thickened and softened. Increased exercise has a place, but I also have to do some letting go. My body is never going to look like it did at 20. It’s a practice, turning away from clinging. Sometimes I am able to give way and accept the loss. Sometimes it is harder, but the thing about old age is the issue will come up over and over. Here’s a loss, deal with it.
Another practice that comes up is turning-into. I was always one to run away from what I felt. Numbness, denial, a muffled depression. In Zen I learned to turn into the feeling, like turning into the current coming down a stream. At every stage in my life I’ve had to work on feeling what I feel. So I look into the grief I sometimes feel and let it emerge from the muffling folds that have hidden it. When my dog Shasta died this summer, I found the loss very hard. She had been with me for sixteen years, and since I live alone since I retired, she had been my primary companion for the last four. Nursing her through what turned out to be a fatal illness was very hard. Her deterioration horrified me and brought up memories of how my mother wasted away in Alzheimer’s. But after her death I gave myself quiet to feel the grief. I chanted for her. Gradually the sorrow eased.
Shasta’s death brought up questions. Do we die? Does some part of us live on? What are we at root?
I can’t say, as I did when I was young, Oh, I’ll live to be an old woman. I remember counting up how old my grandmothers had been when they died (82 and 88) and telling myself, So, you’ll live that long anyway. My brother’s death at 50 taught me that there are no guarantees. And my mother’s long, hard death at 89 taught me you don’t necessarily want to live as long as possible.
I hang around with a friend who is 100. She’s an amazing woman who survived the bombing of Berlin with toddlers in tow as she ran for bomb shelters, a dancer once, still a writer and a naturalist. She was a camp host in the National Forests until she was 96. So she’s kept her physical and mental abilities far longer than most people. But this last year, she’s been slipping. I arrive to take her to a club meeting, and more often than not she will have forgotten we are going anywhere. When we went on the yearly Bird Count, she, who had been the key identifier, could no longer remember the birds’ names. She said she did not recognize her daughter when her daughter came to visit. Who was that wrinkled, yellow-skinned old woman sitting on her sofa? That disturbed her. Yet I find her bright-eyed and funny, still herself, when I come to pick her up.
I think of my mother, with her brain so eroded by Alzheimer’s she rarely woke, staring at me with a long silver gaze. She could not speak but she could look, and she looked and looked. She died later that week, and I realized that had been her goodbye. What was she as she looked? And after she died?
The decline of old age is not just a matter of losing words and keys and physical strength. It is a drifting away of many things we thought we were. As they go, we mourn them and, I hope, we let them go. We ask ourselves, does anything last? Does anything of me and those I love last? And we look inside to see.
Postscript: Since this essay was written in 2007, many things have changed. Sesshins went from 4 days back to 7 and maybe now to 0. I shared my house with a little stray dog for a couple of years, and now with a giant, puppyish hound dog. My friend passed away this month at the age of 103.
About Sarah Webb