“And I fear that I am going mad, for I cannot just be growing old”
~ Neil Gaiman (1)
In life there is madness, but madness is not reserved to the old. Really only aging is. We prefer madness, (if that is what it takes), to the negation of life that aging presents to us. In our poem of life, death is pushed away. We cannot find adequate words to make death acceptable. We cannot even find words of consolation.
One passes away. Into what? We feel loss, but what has been lost? Can it be found? Was life misplaced?
“Growing” old seems absurd. How does one “grow” old? “Getting” old has that horrible gerund clinging to it. Getting, growing, aging and death do not fit the measure of our being. All those other invented names seem helpless and useless, like elder, third-age, “golden” age (we suspect the opposite). “Mature adult” is worse still; the reality is that we become more like children as we age. The infant is helpless. The dying mature adult is helpless too, but is falling off life, not falling into life.
Senescence, from Latin sescere, senex, is, as Wikipedia explains:
“the process of accumulative changes to molecular and cellular structure that disrupts metabolism with the passage of time, resulting in deterioration and death.”
It is further explained that senescence (albeit indirectly) is by far the leading cause of death. Yet, interestingly enough, senescence is not the inevitable fate of all organisms. Some organisms actually experience chronological decrease over time. And hydrae, small, simple fresh-water animals, appear not to die, nor do they experience aging. Cancer cells are usually immortal.
Theories of aging range from gene expression changes to the cumulative damage of uncertain biological processes. Wikipedia adds:
“Whether senescence as a biological process itself can be slowed down, halted or even reversed, is a subject of current scientific speculation and research.”
Aging is generally characterized by a declining ability to respond to stress and increased homeostatic imbalance, the result of a higher investment in reproduction than in maintenance of the body and the mind.
It seems that much can be done to improve our lives and to write a truly beautiful paean (a hymn of thanksgiving, a poem of thanks, from Paian, the Homeric name for the physician of the gods) to balanced living and balanced dying without stress.
But we also have a lot invested in death and its denial.
Flowers fade, and there must be a moment in the life of a flower when there is a pause between bloom and fade, when being alive ceases to become or be and begins to unbe, or begins to be in another sense, a sense of unknowing, possibly a celebration of passing, an event, a coronation, a sacrifice.
My personal investigation is to observe and write down that unbeing of substance in myself; what my Ayurvedic doctor calls a process of “dematerialization”. I want to observe whether I can describe to myself what if anything this unbeing contains or consists of.
The flower, we know, simply is, as we cannot simply be.
For we are bound to thought and bound to thinking.
Bound to images and time and concepts of life and death.
Yesterday, a funeral. All of us there are wearing our self-portraits of gradual unbecoming. We are witnesses to one death among many that same day For the moment we are lacking only ashes. Looking around the church I see the faces and the body movements of the living. I shift uneasily from introspection to thought and ennui to sharing the quiet nervous coughing.
Now it is nearing midnight.
I see faces around a bar, young men anxiously leaning forward over their beers and young women dressed like flowers. I can still hear the music of their youth, but I can feel the music in me moving slowly from electronic to—something more distant. It is interesting to observe that as I age I can hear a faraway cough but the words spoken in a bar are lost in the music.
One of the inhabitants of Casa Aurea is María Teresa. We are told she has Alzheimer’s disease. María Teresa is wandering about with no apparent direction, picking up cushions and towels, folding the towels and placing them elsewhere, wandering into other rooms, picking up possessions, and dropping them off in other areas. She is walking tilted from the waist up at an angle of almost 45 degrees. This is a side effect we are told, of her medication for Alzheimer’s.
An elderly Angelino is sitting in an easy chair, trying to pull off his diaper. His cane sticks out from his lap, and trips up Yolanda as she tries to push past in her walker. She grabs the cane and begins to whack the Angelino until a nurse stops her.
On another visit we find Yolanda’s roommate, Pura, black and blue from a fall or a beating, possibly at the hands of Yolanda. Pura begs us to take her away. “I will die here,” she whispers. Yolanda has a harried face alternating between fury, self-pity, helplessness and incomprehension.
A thin man in shorts with pencil legs is hiding behind a wall.
It appears everyone is on some kind of medication. Is this a madhouse? Is this the future of aging? Is this my future? Am I mad? I cannot be just growing old.
Larrier had come to live with us more than four years earlier. Born in New York City and raised in Connecticut and Vermont, she lived in Italy forty-five years with her Italian husband, raising two daughters. When her husband died, she lived alone in an Italian village for some time, visiting one daughter in Italy and her other daughter in Mexico. In her apartment overlooking the Ticino River, she exchanged the matrimonial bedroom for a small room behind her kitchen, out of simplicity, convenience, or out of loneliness.
We were never able to find out the reason for her decision to live in a hermitage.
Five years after her husband’s death, she took it upon herself to visit a recent widower in New Jersey who had been a witness, with his wife, of Larrier’s own marriage in NYC. She never returned to her apartment in Italy. Instead she began to share a high-rise in Cliffside Park, New Jersey with her new partner.
There were different expectations. He expected her to look after him. She expected him to look after her. Both suffered. He became angrier, and Larrier became more dependent and passively resistant.
After her partner had a recurrence of throat cancer, Larrier was unable to look after herself, much less assist her partner. We brought her to México to live with us. Several months later, her partner died.
When Larrier suggested living in Casa Aurea, we took her to see a room. She liked the golden retriever belonging to the owners, and also seemed to enjoy the general atmosphere of the home and its residents. We arranged a week’s test. We went off to the beach for several days, leaving Larrier to experience Casa Aurea. When we returned, Larrier appeared serene, although confused about where we had gone and what she was doing at the care home.
As we were moving Larrier out of her temporary room at Casa Aurea, another elderly woman, a German who must have been a real beauty in her earlier years, was being moved into the room. She had no idea where she was or what was happening.
She asked continually, “Will you take me with you?” It was immensely sad.
At that moment, I felt how important it was for a person to enter a care facility while they were still present enough to recognize their situation.
Too late is too late.
Larrier stayed with us in our home while we discussed options. We were unsure whether a care home was best for her. She was happy to be with us but the next day was the same as all the days of the previous year. Nurses came back to care for her at night. She stopped her daily walks to a nearby park. She slept or rested most of the day.
We let Larrier know her move to Casa Aurea would be a permanent move, no longer a trial. She agreed.
Once she was installed in her new apartment in Casa Aurea, she immediately renewed her activities and friendships there. She enjoyed the evening guitar serenades of one of the male nurses. She danced with her day nurse to the songs of Ella Fitzgerald. We sang Christmas carols together. The care was not up to our standards, but the nurses were kind.
We grew to enjoy our visits with Larrier. Love replaced duty. Larrier was openly joyful and always surprised to see us. For her, lacking short-term memory, our every visit took on the quality of a first time. We learned to share this joy of being in the present moment with her. We stopped insisting, “But we were here yesterday. Don’t you remember?” And she would answer, “No, I don’t remember.”
Did it matter? Was it important? No.
There came a day when we thought we could bring Larrier back to our home from Casa Aurea. We shared a beautiful time with her. We had lunch and went into the swimming pool together. Larrier was happy to be with us, but she did not object when it was time to take her back to Casa Aurea. She accepted the lift back to the care home with pleasure, saying, “I am going to sleep well tonight.”
And now our lovely Larrier is dead. She died peacefully and suddenly, on February 11, 2014, taking advantage of a time when all her far-flung family had come for a visit, to slip away from her walks no longer taken and her serene moments of living in the present and letting go the past. It was what she had said she wanted, although until her last moment she said she was afraid to die.
It appears to us that life is more certain than death. Life is manifestation. It plays out before us. Death plays too, but it is not life as we know it.
I remember my teacher, Swami Radha, explaining to me why, in Indian mythology, Krishna, Siva, and other male gods, are a blue color. “Blue represents the sky without limits, the unknown,” she said.
“We always know who is the mother. We see a pregnant woman and we know she will be a mother. But who is the father? We don’t know. We might suspect, we can test, but the father is still unknown, both in the animal realm and in the human realm. That is what the male god represents: the unknown, the potential, while the female represents all manifestation, life.”
Yama, the god of death holding a mirror in the Buddhist wheel of life, is fiercely male. In the west there is the Grim Reaper. In Greek mythology, Thanatos (death) is the twin brother of Hypnos (sleep). Thanatos is a son of Nyx (night) and Erebos (darkness). Thanatos has a heart of iron and is pitiless.
What if death were our mother? Would this change our relationship with death and aging?
Annihilation of self, transmigration or some form of existence after death, are all theories. With anecdotal exceptions, no one has come back to report convincingly on the experience of death. But even if it were so, the after-death experience, or the between-lives experience, would not move the fiercely held perception of the truth of death: that death is the end of life, unavoidable but to be avoided or outwitted. The fragmented version of death that we live by is the truth that we seem to die by.
Can we accept that death is a part of life? Perhaps we can accept this intellectually, for we all know that death will come to each life. The question is whether death can be integrated into life without all the negative emotions. What we have consumed with our perceptions of death is fear. Can we move out of fear? How?
Once I can accept that death is an essential ingredient of life I might be able to relate to life in a different way than to fear my death and death itself.
This does not happen by imagining a more acceptable version of death as kind or compassionate or with whom I may be able to form a relationship as companion or trickster, mediator or escape artist. Nor is it helpful for me to accept that in a less relative sense there is neither death nor life, only interdependent being, amidst an immeasurable unitive consciousness.
When I can accept is that all forms come from the mother, that death is a change of form and therefore a manifestation of the mother, and that this manifestation includes death, then death as a fluid truth or a changing vision can find a home in my consciousness.
Such a vision must be a poetic vision. Is not the poetic vision, manifested by my actions and unrestrained by previous paradigms and theories, the only possible way to enter fully into life? Above all this is the question I pose to myself.
The ever-changing and fluid universe, (from which all comes and into which all goes, independent of time and space, in which all theories and perceptions are temporary), is not a mystical vision that replaces previous mystical experience. It is something that must emerge from my own experience, which is also the experience of all that is the universe.
A child emerges from the universe of the mother. We all come “into existence” in this way. But, perhaps the idea of “coming into existence” is another theory. The atoms that form all material in the universe come from the universe.
There is no need for a Big Bang theory. We are the universe, as is everything else. Our eyes do not come from us, nor do our hands. Our physical mother did not create them. There is no need to put a name (God) on a process. It simply is.
Since our origin is universal, there is no ending to what is. However, in death I suspect that there is a transformation of the individual, ego self.
We usually do not address the next step, the suggestion that this transformation of the self might be actually be a good thing, universally speaking. The fact I am stuck with a partial image of myself as a 16-year-old is not a welcome image. I would prefer to be more mature. I would settle for the perspective of a 57 year old.
That is mad thinking, but I prefer madness to just growing old. And that is my problem, denial of what is.
The next question then is: what is so compelling about my own ego that I would want to conserve it, preserve it, and fear to let it go?
I might answer that I do not like all of me, but basically, at least I am. I do not want to lose this connection, whatever it is. And this is my basic attachment. Is there a way to let it go without blaming old age and death for the deterioration and loss of my self? Would I have to lose my self? How would that happen?
I have read books without number and I have listened to the wise and the detached and even the illuminated.
They do not help more than to a certain point as long as I hold onto the selfish idea of a “me”. For moments I can cede this self to the sunset, or to breathing, or to meditation, or to various other realities, but I cannot find anything convincing enough to help me to break out of ego.
So here I am left with myself, with a fear of losing myself as I age, as this I is lifted by the motion of life moving wavelike and particle-like over, under and around a body-mind that is becoming less substantial, that is, in effect, losing its grip on material life.
I am the wave.
I am the wave mounting in its terrible, fascinating movement, to break on the shore of life, my body thrown to the worms and my mind—my mind? Whatever this unsubstantial reality-imagining device can be called, I want another name for it, something that will take me past my pain and my fear. I know drugs won’t do it, but writing may—observing may.
It just may.
I thank Thich Nhat Hanh and his reference to the practice of the Five Remembrances of the Buddha. (2)
My nature is to age. I cannot escape old age.
My nature is to become ill. I cannot escape from illness.
My nature is to die. I cannot escape from death.
The nature of all things and all persons is that of change. There is no way to separate myself from them. I cannot conserve anything. I came into the world with my hands empty and I will leave the world in the same way.
My actions are my only unique and true belongings. I cannot escape from the consequences of my actions. They are the ground that supports me.
1 From An Evening With Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer, “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” © Amanda Palmer 2012
2 Anger, by Thich Nhat Hanh, punlished in english by Riverhead Books a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. © 1990 by Thich Nhat Hanh
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