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Dignity in Losing

"The vet said Teresa has an enlarged spleen or liver, which is not uncommon in older cats. But there's a chance it's cancer." My husband was telling me this on my cell phone while I was strolling through a fashion exhibit in the Phoenix Art Museum. "We need to okay an Ultrasound and needle aspiration for a more definitive diagnosis," he continued. Wandering past startled looking manikins draped in aged 60s couture, it was as if I was listening to a surreal audio tour commenting on the lifeless costumes by American designer Giorgio di Sant' Angelo. "But babe," husband added, "I don't want to do any heroic therapy on the cat, she's 12 years old." The Twiggy-wear collection hung limply in strange blue light, like a sad post-script of our once wild side. "So what are we to do?" I asked, gazing at a bandana in faded primary colors that had fallen over a manikin's eyes. I used to dress just like this: a colorful sash looped around my head, a long sweater, and a skirt so short it road up past my underwear when I held onto an overhead strap in the subway. "We should discuss it when you come home, but it may be time to put her asleep." Thus opened another discussion of grief and loss, which is becoming a new anthem for us Boomers.

In fact, I was in Phoenix helping my sister and her usually exuberant husband shoulder some of the care of his cancer treatment. I was visiting during week five of his seven-week regimen of radiation and chemotherapy for tongue cancer. He was facing thirteen more blasts of radiation, and six full days of IV chemo drips to wipe out any errant cancer cells, as well as obliterate healthy cells and tissue, his immune system, and any beneficial flora and fauna left. His neck already resembled Johnny Cash's ring of fire and I shudder to think how enlarged and weepy the neck blisters have become in subsequent weeks. Or how the increased heat radiating from his singed neck, chest and back will make sleeping lying down near to impossible, or how swallowing a melting ice cube -- let alone his concoction of round-the-clock pills -- will sear his charred tongue and throat, or how his feeding tube will continue to irritate any bending or sitting movement. Not to mention the constant nausea abated by pain medication that inflicts more pain to ingest.

While you could argue that modern medicine and technology are keeping us alive longer and even affording a better quality of life -- once we get past the treatment, you could counter that modern medicine still fails to dispense treatment that dignifies our weakened condition. It's an issue begging for our attention (in addition to OWS): how do we gain the freedom to age with dignity while taking advantage of modern medicine?

Slouching into middle-age -- a state that continues to cause chagrin, if not flat out denial, we've grown to accept the initial pesky losses good-naturedly, like our muscle tone, physical flexibility, short-term memory, inability to read small print, even losing a good night's sleep once caused no great disruption in our honed routines. But as these conditions have intensified over years, compounded by other, less pesky, losses - we can no longer deny the inexorable loss of our vainglorious youth. Additionally, we're now challenged by the really big losses. The heart-breaking losses. At this point in our journey we've lost a loved one, or our livelihood, or home, or health and wellbeing. Being middle-aged now means having suffered a big loss. Not that we didn't suspect this when we were younger than thirty, but then we had eons ahead of us before considering losing big. Now we've arrived. But it doesn't have to be a complete bummer.

My elderly cat, for instance, seems to be handling her cancer diagnosis just fine. Opting for palliative care, my husband and I administer tablets to stimulate her appetite and she's now gobbling up baby and kitten food with gusto. She then snoozes in the sun, or bats at her favorite toy, but she's spending most of her final months doing more of what she's always loved: napping and purring on our laps. Meanwhile, my brother-in-law counts the days left to his cancer treatment on one hand And though he's been beaten up by modern medicine, he's found a new love in raising native flowers and medicinal herbs. Like a proud parent, he graphs the growth and vitality of his plants, as well as administers nutrients and soothing words to his young charges. And then there's my dad; having lost my mom to lung cancer years ago, he's been happily remarried for two decades. My terrific step-mom and her grown children have enlarged my father's experience of family. Lastly, there are my adult students studying screenwriting at City College in San Francisco. Many of them get by on small, fixed incomes, and have endured gay bashing, or racism, or ill health to lesser and greater degrees in their lives, but they're moving into third careers as eager new filmmakers, proud to show their work in film festivals.

"Pieces simply stop working, or fall away," my husband's 90-year-old aunt confided in me years ago. She was relating her experience of losing her eyesight and bits of memory. "But it's a relief not to worry about these things anymore," she said. By that time she had outlived three husbands, having lost her first one along with her son in the Holocaust in Poland sixty years ago. "And there's always a new door to open," she added. She lived by these words, having started a new life in the US, published four novels, and even enjoyed a new admirer in her coop complex.

Gleaning from some of this living wisdom, I have faith that we're going to find new ways to cope with our middle-aged grief and loss with much dignity. Sure, we'll rage and rant and suffer, but I suspect we'll revive our abilities to question authority and reconfigure how our health care is delivered. We'll rediscover our commitment to community and capacity for giving generously to one another. And reignite our risk-taking tendencies and passion for talking-the-talk and walking-the-walk of deeply connecting to those who have sustained us, and those we must sustain in kind.