(continued from Part 1) The cocktail hour conversation was upon us. We gathered around Emily to bring her news of the day and import our energy and loving attentions into her small daily world. We chatted and joked and teased and told stories.
Until the last year Emily was able to maintain the illusion of her independence, continuing high levels of social engagement, health, and dignity. Over time she had learned to compensate for small losses while pretending nothing had really changed. Then came the accumulated mass of partial losses: partial loss of her hearing, the partial loss of her mobility, the partial loss of her memory, the partial loss of ability to have extended conversations, and the partial loss of her ability to be actively engaged with her own peer group. She had to have one eye surgically removed, accompanied by macular degeneration in the remaining eye and a growing anxiety about the “spookiness” of darkness.
Accustomed (if that is the word for it) as I have become to death through the years, even my own, death does not seem to provoke much fear in me. What I was unprepared for was my visit to Emily’s reality, the planet Partial. Emily is a woman who has displayed amazing good humor and courage in all the years I have known her. Was I prepared to acknowledge her current condition is as much a natural part of life as her earlier years were? Was I willing to see her condition as a loss but not a tragedy given her age and amazing accumulation of experience through her many years?
Getting Emily into the wheel chair, into the car, out of the car, into the restaurant, conversed with, fed, back into the wheel chair, into the car, out of the car, back into the wheel chair, and into her room was, at best, an extended exercise in patience and tenacity and love on all of our parts, hers included. Her humor and dignity were inspiring. She tried to be fully there. She was partially successful.
After dinner and momentarily alone in the restaurant parking lot, I called my wife, Brown Eyes (who was still at our house in Palm Heights, elevation 14’). I spontaneously burst into tears.
Later I asked our friends Karen and Bill what this dining experience had been like for them.
“It has become the new norm for us. We had to move mother from the planet Pretend (nothing had changed) to the planet Partial because she simply could not take care of herself properly and we don’t have the skills or full time availability to do it. We never know who she’ll be up to being on any given day. It’s one day at a time. She’s more childlike than before and less defended."
"This means on her good days we have conversations we could never have had before. On her bad days we simply hold her hand. She spends hours listening to books on tape and then talking about what she can remember in a sincere effort to stay engaged. She’s too aware to fool or tease out of her down periods. She’s too partial to be who she used to be. She lives on the planet Partial and our ability to retire and move on freely with our own lives in some ways reside there with her, waiting.”
I kept asking myself: Was I prepared to acknowledge her current partial condition is as much a natural part of life as her earlier years? Was I willing to see her partial condition as a loss but not a tragedy given her amazing accumulation of experience and life through her many years?
Finally, I realized Emily’s unspoken gift to me was clear and simple: “Savor each day across all phases of our lives. Little will happen that is unnatural or unbelievably tragic. Deal with it. Keep savoring. Show up and pay attention. Do what’s in front of you. To do less is to toss away what’s intangibly but really valuable.”
Thank you, Emily.
-as published in Living Out East and On the Bay http://www.livingouteast.com
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