The other day at the pool, my friend Debbie and I were having a conversation about being seriously tired. Her fatigue was the result of a visit from her daughter, her granddaughter and her sister, who all came to her house for a week. Along with them came visits from her son and his partner, her kids’ dad and various friends of everyone. She had the most wonderful time, the only problem being that after all had departed, she felt utterly void of energy. At the same time, I was exhausted too. My weariness stemmed from throwing my son and his girlfriend’s wedding together with a scant week’s notice. My new daughter-in-law is Dutch. Our country has complicated rules about visitor visas versus work visas, a real pain in the neck for a professional such as herself. They were madly in love anyway and so they decided to get married, in my house where I’ve lived since 1978. Michael’s presence is strong here and my son wanted to feel it during this most special moment. So I put on my mental and physical track shoes to pull it all together. I also wound up with two houseguests, H’s best man who is like a son to me, along with another one of his close friends. Everything turned out beautifully. When the dust settled and everyone departed, I felt like getting out of my living room recliner to head upstairs might be more effort than I could muster. As Debbie and I sat on the bench in the hallway where we don our street shoes after swimming, I mentioned that I thought we seventy-plus year olds needed more practicing being old. Or at least older. Is there a manual for that which provides rules or guidelines?
Of course there are, dozens of them. For myself, I can never decide what I think old is. Generations ago, old was in your forties. In some parts of the world that still is old. As medicine in this country has improved, people can live for decades longer than their forties. Now I hear people say, 60 is the new 40, or 70 is the new 50. I suppose that’s true for some. I don’t really know where I fit into those paradigms. A lot of older people I know sound surprised about being old, saying things like “in my mind, I still feel exactly the same as I always have.” But for most folks, bodies instinctively know that they have a shelf life and that despite our valiant efforts, declines are going to happen despite our best efforts. I remember my mom constantly bemoaning all the things that she wished she could still do when there was no way her physical being would allow them. She was mournful and grumpy. I decided that route wasn’t for me. A great believer in trying to be where you’re at in the moment, I’m working on acceptance of my reality. This personal assignment isn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever tried. I’m thinking about how to do this more often than usual because I have benchmarks in my head, recognitions of what still might be and what absolutely will never be. I’m working hard in my brain while it’s still functioning at its peak. I still feel pretty sharp. And I know things, things that are facts.
I am now in the month of April. Fifty years ago, I moved in with Michael at age 20, about five weeks before my 21st birthday. He was 22, his 23rd birthday coming up at the beginning of June, just two weeks after mine. We’d known each other for nine months, almost three of which we were apart as I made my way through Europe, trying to sort myself out of a toxic love story that had seriously damaged my faith in all things romantic. And yet, after our astonishing first meeting in August, 1971, when we were pulled together the way a science fiction tractor beam latches onto a spinning object, ultimately reeling it into home base, I was already aware that what I’d always wished for in a partnership was right in front of me. By October, I was writing about the miracle of finding a fit with a person that I thought was impossible, like a fantasy mind meld. That following April when I showed up on Michael’s doorstep, never having shared one kiss, and announcing that I was moving in with him and sleeping in his bed, I had no idea that we’d be together until he died five years ago. One half century ago. Doesn’t that sound long? The evening that we received his last most dreadful prognosis after five years of dealing with his cancer, he looked at me and said, “baby, we’re not going to have our time.” After almost 45 years, we still felt short-changed. We were supposed to grow old together. Compared to the early losses some experience, we’d already done that. So what. If we could’ve gotten to 100 years old together, we’d have taken it. As the Rolling Stones said, “you can’t always get what you want.” I’m still here, navigating whatever years I have left on my own. Going forward for the most part. At least sort of…I’ve magically created an assistive mechanism that’s working for me – the downstairs life and the upstairs life.
My downstairs life is me in the external world. Despite the invariable aches and pains that accompany aging, I still have considerable vitality. I thrive in my garden, still able to dig, sling heavy bags of mulch around, planting and pruning away, weather permitting. I just can’t do that for eight hours straight any more. I need to set a slower pace so I don’t cripple myself. I swim or walk at least five days a week. I’m not speedy but I’m steady. I enjoy photographing birds, flowers and trees. My intellectual life is primarily in the downstairs world. I found my way into excellent classes on zoom, offered through the Smithsonian Institute, which have covered topics from cephalopods to the Medicis, the Spanish Inquisition to the history of pandemics. I plan my calendar in the downstairs life, trying to safely attend concerts or exhibits and hopefully, to travel a bit this year. I quit my book club. I decided that reading books that members chose for our once-monthly meeting wasn’t working for me. I don’t know how long I’ll be alive but I’m certain I’ll never make it through my list of all the books I want to read. I do miss the socializing of the group but I’m glad I’m making all of my decisions about what I stuff in my head.
Despite the limits of Covid, I’ve made my way to a few adventures, hoping to live as well I can while I’m able, doing some of the trips I’d hoped to share with Michael. That’s the fun stuff. More complicated, however, in this downstairs life, are the tasks of running the daily existence which are no longer shared. I am always grateful to him for teaching me about cars and tools and believing that almost anything can be fixed. But this part of older is the most wearing for me, not being able to split life’s burdens with a partner. I need to assemble a new lawnmower as the people who’ve done that for the last four years have bailed on me. That will be interesting. I’ve been having car trouble recently, mystifying problems that have eluded even my excellent mechanic. It’s been like having a bothersome pain and going to the doctor who then finds nothing wrong with you. I started trying to think logically about all the possible issues which could come and go. I had my air filter changed. It wasn’t really that dirty but it was filled with leaves and twigs. The professional’s guess was squirrels or mice taking up residence in that space. The next issue wound up being a damaged cap on my brakes master cylinder. That sounded like an easy fix. I popped my hood open to make sure I knew what I needed and was revolted to find a dead rat lying wrapped around a belt in what it must’ve thought was a warm cozy corner. Apparently I’m in a running war with rodents. Are these really my golden years? I guess part of this “older” business is knowing that I have to be able to do even the most disgusting things myself without hesitation. The good news is that my garage is detached so I don’t have nightmares about these critters running around my house.
The wretched news of the world is part of the downstairs life. I read and watch more of it than is probably ideal for my mental health. When Michael was living we were always committed to being as aware as possible of what was going on outside our little universe. These past few years have been a heavy lift for me as I’m often alone while trying to process these dystopian times. Knowing, hearing and seeing what’s happening outside these walls makes me hurt and arouses despair. Downstairs I fantasize about getting in my car, or maybe a more reliable one, and just driving away. Driving to wherever the beauty is, the glorious nature which will distract me from the endless litany of one dark report after another, from the smallest tragedies to the ones that threaten the whole world. I still try to find a way to help. I think there’s nothing that will ever rival my younger days when for years I could fight the good fight every day with every fiber of my being. Older. Downstairs older.
There are seventeen stairs between the downstairs life and the upstairs life. I navigate them with caution. I have two titanium knees, both replaced quickly, a year and a half after Michael’s death. I put off those surgeries for a long painful time, afraid that if I recovered poorly, I wouldn’t be able to care for him when he needed me. I walk upstairs very carefully, making sure I don’t do anything to undo the relief those knees afford me. All the while I’m laughing to myself as I hear Michael’s voice echoing in my head, saying he knew I’d never have the replacements. I knew I couldn’t live well without them. I think he thought I was just being cowardly. When I get upstairs, I’m still older, certainly much older than I was back in 1981, when after three years of occupying the first floor apartment, we expanded to the second floor to make room for our new baby. Ultimately, we took over the whole house. At some points in time, four different rooms served as our bedrooms. The one where I sleep now has been the permanent one since 1989. This room is my sanctuary. Within its confines, I am reminded of the power of gravity associated with being older as I observe my skin getting drier and abruptly morphing into sagging little sections that are still surprising. When I get ready for bed, washing my face, I notice that my eyelids droop and remember that my mom’s got so low that there was talk of having them lifted so she could still see. But the essential feeling of upstairs is that time and most worries are almost immediately diminished. I’m still my current me, but a more carefree version.
I love being surrounded by all our books, photos and collectibles from our life together. I love the art from our visits to the Art Institute of Chicago.
Family pictures dominate the shelves that rim the room. There’s the stuffed duck that belonged to our grandson. Michael always said, “when I get really sick, bring me that duck,” and we did, it’s softness somehow comforting for him. After he died, I washed it and tried returning it to that sweet boy who told me to keep it for company and a reminder of his grandpa. So it sits, ensconced on the bed. I am older upstairs but it feels different, more acceptable and less weighty than all those heavy burdens downstairs. Without ever planning it, I find that I’m still sleeping on my side of the bed, which just feels right. I’ve also accepted that unconsciously, every night, I still start talking to Michael as I did for so many years, sometimes in my head, occasionally aloud and often in notes I record like dictation on my phone. I think that when I was younger I’d have judged my behavior as pretty weird. But not any more. My upstairs older being is incredibly flexible and much easier-going than the downstairs one. My bed is in front of the window that backs up on my rear garden. I have a big bird population out there. Their noises are constant, often whispery at night as if they’re jostling each other in the branches. Their volume increases as the sky grows lighter but they don’t disturb me. I read books under my covers that have nothing to do with daily matters. I wonder about life and death and whether one day I’ll close my eyes and never wake the next day, in the bed I love, in the room I love, with the spirit of the man I still love surrounding me. Each night I say his name out loud before I close my eyes, still somewhat surprised that the practical, grounded older woman who lives downstairs becomes so different on the second floor. Ah well. This interesting dualism that accompanies my aging process is working for me. Aren’t I the lucky one?