I knew something was wrong when my daughter came up to me with a blanket. I picked her up, set her on my lap and asked what was wrong. Earlier in the week she had complained of inner ear pain. Before that her older sister was sick so I assumed Jane had picked up a bug of some sort. She put her head down, I pulled the blanket up around her and she started crying. When I asked what was wrong she told me that she didn’t want to get old. You might smile at the idea of a five-year-old child crying over growing old but this was a grave concern for her. Her sister went through a similar phase at about the same age. She was looking through pictures of herself, her sister and her cousin. One of the pictures featured her eating spaghetti. There was more on her face than anywhere else. The other pictures were of the children playing outside. Jill was crying over her lost youth and mourning the days that had passed.
Never again would she sit in a high chair. The little purple jacket she had worn was long gone, Jill was sitting on my lap crying about the passage of snow-filled days. As Jane sat crying in my lap my own thoughts drifted to the future. Some day her soft smooth skin will be marred by age and wrinkles. The blonde of her hair will fade. Individual hairs will coarsen and stiffen. Collagen and elastin diminish as you age. Your metabolic rate slows. The synovial fluid that encapsulates your joints gradually decreases. Strength and flexibility are lost as memories that were clear grow dim before they are lost forever. Bones become thinner, weaker and smaller. The tiny muscles in your eyes lose the ability to move as rapidly as they once did. Intraocular pressure can increase leading to diseases such as glaucoma.
The older you get the harder it is to hear certain frequencies. Words sit on the tip of your tongue. You forget the names of people you knew and places that you frequent seem strange. Friends and family still drop by. They call you up just to see how you’re doing but deep inside you know that they’re checking up on you. Have you noticed that your reflexes are no longer as quick as they once were? Are you now content to listen to others when previously you would have been an active participant in a lively conversation? Is that snappy rejoiner lost to space and time for good?
Will you continue to live in the comfort of your own home or do pesky things like stairs and lack of bars in the bathroom make assisted living accommodations in a senior complex seem more attractive now? Is there a stack of brochures for different facilities sitting on the dining room table? Did you wander into a room only to forget why you traveled there? Are you sitting in your chair because there's no one else around to help you up? When you move into your new place the visitors all come at once. They’re considerate of your nap and activity schedule. You fall asleep more easily now. Your eyes drift shut as you lounge in your recliner. A certified nursing assistant makes sure that your afghan is over your lap. Your room is decorated with pictures of your great-grandchildren. Years of wedded bliss come to a sudden end when your spouse passes away before you do. The world is smaller than it used to be. Smaller, noisier and blurrier. You forget to put your glasses on one morning and find that seeing the world around you isn’t as important as it once was.
The weight you’ve lost from living on institutional food means that your clothing no longer fits. It doesn’t matter what you wear, you’re almost always cold, regardless of the temperature inside. You’re inside because you rarely go out. The desire to feel the wind in your hair is gone. Your skin is pale and marked by age. When your children visit they ask if you need anything. Their company means more than it did in the past. Their accomplishments make you proud. No one speaks to you of things that don’t concern you. The days are quiet. Nights become longer and longer. Food is meaningless. Sleep is less refreshing. Pain invades more and more of your body. You’re tired. Tired of life and tired of living. Every day seems eternal yet brief. Death is something you consider frequently. You’ve outlived friends, family and loved ones. The journey is coming to an end. The room you live in has never been your home. You long to be reunited with those who once were.
Photographs collect dust as your brain decays. The pillow beneath your head is flat and hard. People chart your fluid intake and output. Now you don’t get out of bed at all. Phone calls are made. Family crowds into the space you occupy. The room is hot but you’re chilled to the marrow of your bones. Someone is crying. Hospice brings snacks that no one eats. During a lucid moment you recognize the people around you. Your energy is focused on the most basic of vital functions; respiration. All too soon for some that stops too. The bed is remade with clean sheets. Your meager possessions have been collected by your family. The few clothes you had have been donated. Tears have been shed. The funeral was what you wanted. Your family donated money to the library because you loved books and reading. People in your family love to read. Your daughter, your granddaughter, her daughter, even the youngest is able to read some very simple books now that she's in kindergarten.
I gave my daughter a hug. She slid off of my lap and ran outside to enjoy the rest of the day.