I’m sitting in my grandmother’s apartment at the Presbyterian retirement community.
Sweat is runs down my face and pools in my armpits. The thermostat reads a brutal 89 degrees and my grandmother is wearing a wool cardigan. There’s no turning it down or else she might pull out the fur coat and gloves.
It wouldn’t be so bad except that I’m fully covered—none of my limbs can be visible or she’ll see my tattoos.
My grandmother is 96 years old, and she’s so frail that a fall she had last year almost killed her. Seeing the shaky outline of a naked lady inked into her granddaughter’s milky flesh would stop her weary heart completely.
This is why I have special Going-to-the-Presby-Retirement-Village clothes—it’s actually a section of my closet in between the hideous, navy job interview suits and the dresses I can’t let go of but will never wear, most of them neon and age-inappropriate. This long-sleeved, floor-dragging outfit is my superhero granddaughter costume, courtesy of the Talbots Petites section.
Yes, I’m a lying, cowardly superhero granddaughter with a naked lady tattoo, but a person with life-saving instincts, nonetheless.
It’s that life-saving instinct that led me here, midway on my trip to a Yin Yoga training in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The mission was actually to save myself; to get some relaxation, education, and a split of champagne to watch the sunset from a rocky peak. I craved Yin—whole hours of it until my hips and jaw and shoulders could release. The slowness, the solitude, the soft music, all of it was needed the way some people need their anti-anxiety meds.
I needed the mat before I became neurotically dangerous to myself and others.
I knew that I couldn’t, in good conscience, drive right past my grandmother’s exit ramp. It was on the way to the retreat, smack dab in the middle of the trip. It felt like the universe was my travel agent, forcing karmic stops along the way. There was an oasis of chain hotels with pools and HBO a few miles down the road. I thought of this as I molded in my sweaty clothes while watching Fox News with my grandmother.
Let’s see what else is on, Grandmother, I said, grabbing the remote to change the channel right before the segment on Obama’s anti-Jesus policies and pregnant white woman abduction story.
I’d like to watch the news. She looked over at me and gestured for the remote.
Here‘s CNN, Grandmother. It’s Anderson Cooper.
Oh, I like him, she said. So handsome, isn’t he? It’s a shame he’s a homosexual. Those people have such a tough life.
This is where the karma part comes in; where I must shuffle through the self-help/spirituality section of my brain and uncover something that will prevent me from making an ass of myself.
There are things I can’t talk about with my grandmother. Not can’t—shouldn’t. Politics, sex, race, pantyhose, pre-marital sex, lipstick: there’s really no point in going there with each other.
I started to change the channel, but she told me to stay on the Coop.
And there the universe is, with its cruel and divine sense of humor. The next segment was about a transgender Navy Seal coming out of the closet and into the media spotlight. While defending this country, he had fought bravely in some of the most dangerous places on earth. He’d been highly decorated and even more stealthy. He spent holidays and furloughs tucked away from the world in dresses and wigs, feeling whole but hunted. The interview took place midway through a process to become, finally, herself.
My grandmother sat in her chair quietly, reading the close-captioned words on the screen. I waited for her to demand a channel change and boycott of CNN. I waited for self-righteous, Presbyterian horror.
It looks like he did his job just fine, she said. It’s unusual, I suppose, but it takes all kinds. Doesn’t it?
This is the thing about my grandmother: she’s become absolutely unpredictable. After her husband of 65 years passed away, she changed in ways that I could have never predicted—some good, some terrifying. Before that, she’d been a pillar of Southern strength and determination. A childhood spent in depression-era poverty made her efficient and strong-willed. Something she applied to every area of her life, especially her own physical body.
But that body launched a rebellion shortly after my grandfather’s death.
First, there was the hip. Then the back. The kyphotic slump settled onto her four foot nine frame seemingly overnight. She still went to her Tai Chi and exercise classes, she still rode the ancient, orange Schwinn stationary bike in her bedroom in five minute spurts. There was, though, very little hint of the vigorous and sturdy grandmother who was always in motion.
That’s the price I have to pay for living this long, she’s said.
This is why, more than Fox News or damp, tropical naps in the guest bedroom, visiting my grandmother is so uncomfortable. I’m forced to acknowledge her decline, not in some cozy, Hallmark way where elderly people are cute and wise. In the real world way, with hospital stays and blue veins and the cabinets filled with Metamucil and blood pressure medications. Walkers and wheelchairs and the white noise of pain drowning out everything else.
Aging is a difficult topic for most people, and that’s why we frequently bypass the exit ramp to that particular conversation, making our way to easier, more alluring intellectual environs. We talk, mostly, about anti-aging: pills, workouts, shots and lasers and Spanx. Few of us hang out with elderly people because, when you’re young, you just don’t really know any. They are a shadow population that few of us attempt to see.
We avoid talking about aging, while knowing that it’s inevitable—desirous, even. Only the young are romantic enough to want to die young. The older you get, the more desperately precious it all becomes.
You’ll see this if you take a Senior Citizen Yoga class, like I did with my grandmother.
Propped up on chairs, the 10 or so participants closed their eyes and turned up their hearing aids for a guided meditation. They followed the elegant instructor carefully, with backs as flat as possible. My grandmother struggled to hear and even more to move, so rigid is her spine.
I followed along as well, picking up one foot and putting it down. Raising arm alongside my ear and putting it down. I gingerly bent forward in my chair, miles from my edge. There was, in me, a desire to not out-yoga my grandmother—to show solidarity. Her pain, her tight spots and brittleness, became my own. Her breath carried my breath the way she once carried me as a child. There was, in this 45 minute class, a sort of timeless state where we were both ageless, boundless, and far removed from transgenders and Fox news, naked ladies and tattoos.
It was a fully unified state that I can’t entirely explain.
I thought of this class often during the remainder of my trip. The Yin instructor reminded us to move mindfully—to ease into the poses with grace and wonder. She said that this practice was about embracing stillness and shadows. The long holds in poses and the meditative nature of Yin makes some people emotional, angry even.
It’s hard, when you’ve been geared-up and over-worked and over-stimulated your entire life to just be with yourself, in yourself.
What I realized was that I was in a Yin workshop, but my grandmother is in a Yin phase; a phase of stillness and shadows. Her husband and friends are gone, and she is quite aware that she isn’t far behind. She accepts this shape that her body has taken.
She is half in shadow, already, and moving toward the edge one very slow step at a time.
I followed my grandmother into the darkness that weekend, and went up the mountain after.
The sun was setting, my carry-cup was full of champagne, and there I made a toast: To life, to death, to pain and loss and suffering. To Yin and Yang. To youth and old age, and to experiencing every minute of it.
Cheers, and Namaste.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise