Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Woes and Complications of the Elderly (i.e. those approaching 40)

(oh dear. this has gotten very long.)
Aging gracefully—slowing down, taking time for aches and pains, easing gently through middle age and into a sedate and orderly dotage—has not been well modeled to me. My mother, 30 years my senior, has taken her retirement as an opportunity not to enjoy a new interest, but rather to cavort gleefully about in a vastly inventive amusement park of new interests (none of which, she reminded me today, includes dusting or seasonal cabinet-cleaning). She lives on the 15-acre land where I grew up and, while she's given up raising livestock and has taken down the intra-proprietal fencing (except for the white rails that define her expansive yard), she does dig around in several acres' worth of flower beds, as well as raising various berries and fruit trees and a giant vegetable garden. She has a now-dwindling collection of elderly pets, and tramps daily through her woods and down her hill to the almost completely silted-up pond with Loper-dog, who is on his teetering last legs but doesn't seem to know it. She takes an exercise class at the nearest Y, and sometimes swims laps in the pool, although as soon as it's barely warm enough to be humanly possible to be in her own pool, she is there swimming with the algae and the waterbugs, getting her daily exercise minus the chlorine. She has season tickets to the opera and to a couple of theaters; she attends choir concerts and the occasional show featuring a grand-niece (to date, the grand-nephews have not taken so strongly to singing and dancing)—as far away as central California.
Mom is also a member of a group of equally garden-obsessed ladies calling themselves the Garden Girls; a book group of long standing; a writer's group of longer standing; a community band; and a brass quintet which she developed, organizes, hosts and cooks for (plus any family members they may bring to rehearsals) once a week. They put on quarterly concerts at a local community center, and Mom organizes those as well.
She also finds time for dinners out and movie nights with friends; she frequently hosts meals at her house; she travels both for visiting within the US but also to tour the world, and she is generally up for an outing when I have something to suggest.
She is not alone in this lifestyle, sharing many of the above interests with her friend Marsh—and aren't I glad she and he have each other (although Marsh could've maybe slowed her down a bit, instead of just having his own endless drive)—but still, for someone (me) who is post-menopausal (well, medically so), taking chemotherapy, and supposed to be cautious of overdoing it so that she can live as long and healthy a life as possible, my mother at almost 70 is setting a very bad example.
My father also set a bad example. He owned his own business until I was about 11 (he was 42), when he "retired" from 7-day work weeks down at the car repair shop and instead spent 7-day work weeks constantly busy doing every other thing under the sun. He built major projects around—and into—our house, took trips to Alaska to work for months at a time in fish camps, had a lively labor trade going in the community, and was instrumental (ha ha) in developing the talented and still thriving Washington Wind Symphony. It occurred to me the other morning that perhaps he somehow called that little hornet to him that awful day 19 years ago on Stuart Island because he couldn't figure out any other way to have a rest. "Hell is if you live a bad life, and as punishment you get reincarnated and have to come back here," my dad would say to me. "Heaven is if you live a good life and when you die, you're dead. That's it. It's all over." I tend to believe in reincarnation rather than any sort of Hell, but I like to think Dad is having a good, long, well-deserved and unjudged nap before working out who he's going to be the next time around.
Even Dr Jason's parents, my almost-parents in Idaho, are awful. They, too, are hovering around 70 and they have 80 acres and still horseback ride and raise cattle and Christmas trees—which his petite mother, A, shears by hand with a big machete. They primarily heat with wood in the lengthy and frigid winters, and K puts up the wood. It's possible they've recently invested in a wood splitter, but I wouldn't be surprised if K still does most of the splitting with an ax.
Perhaps you are getting a sense of some of the difficulties I am facing here.
I am 38 ½. I am strong; healthy. As far as I know, I don't have high cholesterol, low iron, low vitamin D, borderline blood sugar levels or anything else that people my age are starting to worry about, because of all the things to be youthfully prodigious at (piano, writing, cooking, languages), I chose breast cancer, and I haven't actually had any of those other tests done in recent memory. Nor do I seem to catch most of the bugs touring the general population—"working" the way I do, I don't spend a lot a time in the company of the unwashed, germy riff-raff. Earlier this year I mentioned to Dr Specht that I was thinking of getting an internist so that I could keep up on the normal registry of aging in America. She seemed to think that was an okay idea, nothing too important, but yeah, since I was apparently going to be living, against all odds, maybe I should see if my diet of sausage and whole milk lattes was on the road toward killing me instead (not quite her words, of course). I have an appointment in early June for a standard physical, so maybe I'll find out something new and I will get to add one of the common struggles of the middle-ager into my collection of health concerns to manage.
In the meantime, though, I have absolutely no fundamental understanding of what a normal aging process is supposed to feel like. In my world, aphorisms like use it or lose it carry a lot of weight—if I can, I do. And if I can't, instead of simply not, I immediately worry that I didn't use it enough and now it's lost. Even though I am consciously aware that I almost died in the hospital three summers ago and now I am in the best physical shape of my life—I know this—I am afraid that taking an afternoon or a day—or heaven forbid even 15 minutes—to lie down and rest means that I'm dying. I'm not just losing muscle tone or balance or bone density or the sun-streaks in my hair—my life is ending; the cancer is getting me after all. The thought that I might simply be tired, and that rest might, in fact, be good for me, might be a gain, in fact, instead of a loss—is something that I rarely ever consider. And yet I know from personal experience in many disparate parts of my life that a healthy mix of work and rest keeps everything functioning smoothly. The obvious irony here is that these thought processes themselves are exhausting.
I used to do a better job of mixing work and rest, and maybe having cancer has messed with my ability to take time off. Simple enough, I suppose—it is daily pounded into my soul that I have no idea how much time I have left, so I want to DO SOMETHING, and taking a nap has never counted as valuable in my book (since infanthood, I'm given to understand). Anyway, several years ago when I was in my mid 20s and studying in Portugal, Mom had just retired and was struggling with coming down off the frenetic days of her 30-year-long teaching schedule (I'm not sure that she's succeeded). "Calin, I need help," she said to me in one of our rare overseas phone conversations. "I am too busy, and you are so good at doing nothing!" I obviously took offense at this (enough, perhaps, that I've already used it in this blog), but she wasn't trying to insult me. She was trying to figure out a way to spend her days the way I was—walking, reading, learning a new city—whatever I felt like, whenever I wanted, in an easy-going way.
The problem with asking me for advice on doing nothing—back when I was 25 and living in a residencial in Porto—was that there was nothing I had to do. My room was cleaned daily, breakfast was included, I sent my laundry out. I didn't know how to knit yet, I didn't have a sewing machine or a piano or even a laptop. It was 1998, and I paid for one hour of computer use each evening at a little cybercafé across the Avenida dos Aliados from my inn, then came back to my room and enjoyed Portuguese television: classic American shows subtitled, not dubbed, so it was no work at all to keep up with the antics of Maxwell Smart or, more modernly, Remington Steele. (note: the Portuguese did rename these television shows while they were subtitling them, and the names had varying degrees of success. "Get Smart" was changed to "Olho Vivo", "Keen Eye"—the pun didn't really work in Portuguese; but Remington Steele, which could've just stayed the same, was greatly improved by being called "Quase Modelo, Quase Detectivo": "Almost Model, Almost Detective". Much more descriptive.)
I now own a house, and have responsibility for dogs and Ian and the home, plus I've learned to knit and I have a sewing machine and a piano and a kitchen and a yard, and I live in a city with a rock climbing gym and horses nearby—and so there is always something to do that needs doing, or something that I want to do. At the moment, I suck at doing nothing. The trick, Mom, to being good at doing nothing, is to take away everything there is to do.
The standard 2-month MRI that I had today (stable) and the subsequent appointment with Nurse Sarah ("You are still leading a charmed life!") have left me with all sorts of new things/additional insights to write about, and this particular entry has gone on quite long enough, so stay tuned over the next few days for me to continue musing about the aging/cancer/life choices/using vs. losing/medical practitioners/happiness/anxiety questions.
In other words, stay tuned for another post.

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