Late Summer 2007
I've just come from a weekend visit to my 101-year-old Aunt Flo. Flo's probably the smartest, most independent woman I know, and it's been hard to watch her grow old. Not as hard as it's been for her to grow old, though, I am sure.
Her story's pretty typical. She lived alone for many years, handling everything herself: her financial affairs, negotiating with contractors, volunteering at church, buying a new car, remembering birthdays with cards and checks, etc. Then, over the years, she started to go blind, and life got messier as she had to depend on others. When she started to go deaf, communication became more challenging. A hip replacement was her only bow to nature's insistence that her body might need some help holding up. She pretty much never took a pill in her life, and a 20-year-old bottle of Tylenol was the only medicine in her medicine cabinet.
Then came ''the fall'' and, to make a long story short, she is now in a nursing home. My strong, independent, brilliant Aunt Flo sits in a wheelchair in her own soundless and sightless world and she's given up on almost everything. Except strawberry hot fudge sundaes, bless her heart. I hate seeing her like this. I spent about 15 hours with her over the weekend and am weary of screaming my end of the conversation into her left ear and hearing the same paranoia-driven story of how her doctor is holding her captive and I am paying the staff not to talk to her. She keeps asking me why she has lived so long and I tell her I just don't know.
Though weary, I am grateful for how this experience has softened my edges. I look at Flo and the other residents and imagine what they were like 50 years ago. They had families, dinner parties, gardens, their own worries and joys. Their skin was smooth, their minds were clear, their legs worked fine, and they could chew whatever food they wanted to chew. They were like I am, now. Being with Flo reminds me to be more empathic, just as I will want someone to be with me years from now. It reminds me that seasons turn into years and years turn into decades, whether we realize it or not. It reminds me that bodies and minds can turn into strangers and there's little we can do about it. And it reminds me that we are all in this together, just at different stages in our lives. Most of all, it reminds me to be more compassionate. This probably isn't the legacy Aunt Flo had in mind, but I'm more grateful to her for this than for anything else we've shared.