PARTS & LOOSE ENDS
If you told me I literally had
to eat poop every day and I would look younger, I just might.
– – – Kim Kardashian
Trying to stay young is like chasing a dream backwards. It’s a demon with bad breath snapping at your heels, a loose end that no matter how many times you tuck it in, it keeps unraveling.
When I was in the ballet during my teenage years, I had a
recurring dream that is a metaphor for the paragraph above. I was standing in the wings, ready to go onstage, performing a familiar ritual.
I looked behind me to see if the seams in my tights were
I felt the back ribbing of my tutu to make sure the hooks
were clasped tightly. Check.
I adjusted my tiara to make sure it was securely pinned. Check.
I touched my ear lobes to make sure my earrings were glued
But in my dream, when I leaned down to tighten the knots in my
pointe shoe ribbons and tuck them in at my ankles, they came undone in my hands. I heard the music, I was supposed to be on stage, but no matter how many times I tried to retie those ribbons, they kept loosening, unraveling and falling onto the floor.
A life that not has been investigated becomes a loose end. When I was in my twenties and I’d retired from the ballet, I turned into a
restaurant parking lot and I was idling, waiting for an elderly woman in the passenger seat to get out of her car before I parked. Someone was helping her, it was taking forever and I groused to myself, “Why don’t old people just get out of their cars? What’s the big deal? When I’m old, I’m not gonna take forever to get out of my car.”
The arrogant ignorance of that statement became painfully
obvious to me half a century later when I was recovering from hip replacement surgery and getting out of my car was a challenge. Maybe it was the LSD or the magic mushrooms that made my generation believe we were immortal, that we could bypass pain and degeneration. That old age had nothing to do with us. We swore
by a popular sentiment: “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” I wonder if political activist, Jack Weinberg, who is credited with those words, feels untrustworthy now that he’s eighty-two.
While youth is responsible for ageism, the elderly play their part in the denial. They just don’t stop to enlighten younger generations about aging. They make it seem like a calamity rather than an inevitability. My uncle Ted was ailing in the hospital, unconscious, close to death and the extended family were gathered in the waiting room to say good-bye. When it was my father’s turn, he went into Ted’s room like everyone else, but when he came out, he announced in a loud voice, “I think he’s gonna make it.” My uncle died an hour later. I guess my father thought if you didn’t acknowledge death, maybe you could get out of here alive.
When I still had the luxury to be in denial about aging, I remember being annoyed that elderly people were always talking about their
operations. Now I understand. The older we get, the more our mobility and sensory skills depend on spare parts: Titanium hips and knees. Shoulder replacements. Tooth implants and crowns. Not the glittery kind. Hearing aids. Eye lenses, canes, walkers and wrinkle fillers. It’s like logging onto Amazon and ordering the accouterments that will allow us to get up in the morning, move through the day with as little pain as possible and stay alert until its time to go back to bed.
If we don’t die unexpectedly, the rocky path that leads us to death’s door is often wrought with fear and loathing in this society. When my mother turned 90, I asked her to tell me about aging, how it felt and how she coped with it. She said, “You don’t understand. I can’t explain it.”
I wish she had tried. I wish she had told me how it felt to have saggy skin, muscle pain, wrinkles and arthritis. I wish she had talked about facing the reality that her future was shorter than her past, that her
eyesight was dimming, threatening her ability to read, the thing she liked best in the world. But I also wish she had pointed out the gifts of aging like wisdom, patience, compassion. Intuition born of decades of life experience. It would have been helpful but she just wasn’t that kind of person. She kept her feelings so well hidden, I sometimes wondered if she had any.
“Forever young” is what we are trying to attain was our motto in the sixties and talking about dying was taboo, as if the mere mention
of it was an invitation. But it isn’t like that everywhere. When I was walking down the street in Bali, a large procession of people in colorful clothing passed by. A group of men were carrying a casket, there was loud talking and singing while children skipped around, ducking under the casket and in and out of the crowds. Children there are included in death rituals and early on, they come to understand that dying is a part of living, not something to be feared
and dreaded but rather, to be accepted and commemorated. So how do we make the truths of life digestible? A spiritual teacher of mine said once, “Death is perfectly safe. Everyone does it.”
Stuart Hodes, an old friend and accomplished dancer/choreographer, who is 97, says, “Everything you do with every particle of yourself can be wonderful. My death will be my greatest performance.”
Clearly he is accepting the end of his life. I recall a stunning moment when one of my mentors, Isa, a woman in her sixties with cancer, was about to leave us. A group of us had gathered on her bed, watching her breathe, when she suddenly turned her head to one side, said “Oh, this isn’t so bad,” and she was gone. That gave me hope that maybe we don’t die into nothingness.
Everyone doesn’t get to die like Isa did, but as we move forward,
trying to tie up loose ends and getting the requisite spare parts to keep us in motion, cultivating the ability to leave the future in the future is worthwhile. We may not know where or when, but we know what is eventually coming. The old adage about the certainty of death and taxes fits here, but if we see spare parts and loose ends as simply the way of things, that replacements are necessary and nothing gets finished and tied up with a neat little bow, we have a better chance of facing the inevitable with less fear and more grace.