I was in the middle of writing the blog with the title above but I felt compelled to modify my original text. An incident occurred toward the end of my time at the pool today. For all the years I’ve been swimming there, a group of older women have been part of the daily crew. Women ten to fifteen years older than me. Over time, a few have died while others developed physical issues which now preclude them from this activity. One of the elders still at it, Ruth, is 86 and quite remarkable. She moves fast and despite some bumps in the road, has been a daily participant until recently. In the past few months her blood pressure has gotten iffy and she needed to get a pacemaker. She normally swims in the hour before me but today when I arrived, I knew she was still in the locker room because her car was in the parking lot. Ruth moves a little more slowly these days. At any rate, I was doing my after-swim stretches and chatting with another friend, when one of the other regulars swam over to us, saying there was an ambulance in front of the building. He couldn’t see who was being tended to in the lobby. I can’t see anything without my glasses but my friend who is taller than me, and who’s got better vision, said it was Ruth. Swimming was almost over anyway so we got out of the water. I decided to wrap myself in a towel to go straight to the lobby to be with Ruth, to offer help. Being alone with two EMT’s in front of a gurney is daunting for anyone, as well as lonely, She appeared to be suffering from vertigo as she’s had a few spells of lightheadedness lately. She’d also had her flu and Covid booster together, only two days earlier. Her son had been called and was on the way. My other friends came to sit for a bit. Eventually Ruth was driven home by her son as there are no real treatments for vertigo and she already has an appointment scheduled with an ear-nose and throat doctor on the books. One of the other friends and I arranged to get her car home. Later that afternoon, my closest buddy wrote to tell me she was glad I’d stayed to help out. I responded to her message with the following reply: “You know me – I never met a crisis I didn’t love.” As soon as I wrote it I was struck by the meaning of that comment. Through my life, I evolved, driven by both the need to be prepared to deal with crises, and the motivation of fear, to become the go-to person when life gets tough. I’m still thinking about how that happened. Now back to what I’d started writing, as both pieces are tied together and make so much sense.
I don’t remember a single thing about myself at three months old. I’m in my eighth decade now and whatever I know about my baby life is what I heard from parents. Apparently I rarely cried, even when I had a diaper rash that turned my bottom fire-engine red. My mom said she wanted to nurse me when I turned my head toward her, but the doctors gave her drugs to dry up her milk and bound up her chest. When I became an adult, I told her that rejection was the source of any problem I’d had in my life. I think I was only half-kidding. I was generally cheery. I slept so well that most nights, my parents were scared that I’d died. They’d had different luck with their babies one and two.
When I look at my eyes in these photos, they look happy, bright and engaged. What’s in us when we’re first starting in this world? Who knows? One day, I expect that humans will have ability to view a reel of everything that’s happened from their birth forward. Perhaps that’ll be a great adjunct to therapy. I’m a great believer in therapy, always likening the need to tune up a car, to the need to tune up your mental health. But that’s a different story. I have toddler memories, just some observations of the dog on the floor in the kitchen, next to me, watching dust sparkle in the light from the window, and observing my mom moving around and talking.
I have other memories from a bit later, being teased by my brother and sister who were, respectively, eight and over five years older than me. They made me toddle toward them at one end of my crib, moving away quickly just as I arrived and then doing it all over again. Not too much scary stuff. I think that my first few years must’ve instilled a strong sense of being loved and treasured in the deepest part of myself. By the time I hit ages four and five, though, I’d discovered fear and uncertainty, likely brought on by my mother’s hospitalization for a surgery. That brought her mother to town to care for us kids.
She was loud, gruff and she hurt my hair. She made pigtails which stuck straight out the sides of my head with teeny rubber bands that yanked at the roots. My brother snuck me into the hospital to see my mom, all drugged up and unbelievably, lifting her gown to show us her lengthy, bloody, vertical abdominal incision. That experience shook my foundation. I think I was already casting around inside myself at that early age, for what I’d have to call strategies, for coping with all the potential bumps in life’s road. I was no longer feeling safe. I suppose lost innocence is always tinged with some regret, but the truth is, those bumps arrived so quickly, regret isn’t a big part of my emotional equation. I wanted to be ready. I was what people call an “old soul,” stretching myself beyond my chronological age to make life better, mostly for people other than me. Ultimately I suppose I figured their benefit would lead to mine. I remember doing my best thinking at the top of a jungle gym like the one below, on the playground at my school. To this day, I can’t understand how I could climb so high when little, only to be fearful of heights in my later life.
One of the good things about being an old soul is that this constant self-analysis hums along below the surface of the face you present to the world. I wanted to be clear about myself, to know who I really was internally. I needed to feel a sense of control which seemed necessary in the uncertain scary world. That doesn’t mean I always liked my personal discoveries or that I always shared my truth with other people. But I learned to not let myself get away with much. I didn’t hide from me, didn’t lie to me, and was always trying to get to the heart of the issue. Any issue. And just to make sure I was keeping myself real, I wrote mostly every thought I had in my journals. That’s the bad part. I don’t get to pretend I didn’t think something or feel something, or to be either falsely proud of myself or falsely embarrassed by anything, because it’s all written down, right in front of me. I stayed in touch with the real me, warts and all. This came in handy for responding to the unexpected experiences that come along in life. I was the constant, with no huge unnerving surprises in my responses. Michael told me more than once, that I was the most singularly unchanged person he ever knew. I couldn’t decide if that statement was a compliment or an insult. I think it was a kind way of saying I was a control freak which I admit, works for me. After trying to stay ahead of the fear that haunted my childhood, I turned out to be a practiced, dependable sort, good in a pinch, able to maintain perspective with a pretty even disposition. I’ll never know what was built in from my beginning that got me here. Nor do I know what might be that event which undoes me. But I do believe I know a few things.
I read “The Worst Hard Time” years ago. An incredible story of life in the dreadful dust bowl years which, within that context, the title is true. In my world, however, I know that there are countless “worst hard times,” on both small, intimate scales and huge ones. When I was a girl, I thought the worst thing that could happen in my life would be the death of my parents. Over time, that fear receded. Everywhere, there were disasters so much bigger than a loss like that. There were wars, famines, mass murders, assassinations and natural disasters. I figured that out. I was just a tiny mote in a great big universe where all kinds of people suffered all kinds of tragedies. I still use that type of thought process to stay balanced. Not being able to do much about the large-scale crises made me focus on how to do something on a more manageable level. I learned how to be the person who sticks around to help when there’s an immediate problem. More importantly, all that internal probing and writing helped me stay calm in the middle of a crisis situation at hand. I can be calm and even-keeled during an emergency. I can go toward a problem instead of hiding or going the opposite direction. Somehow or other, after years of practice, I turned my vulnerabilities into strengths. I consider that circuitous route I took to be a good thing.
In the photo above, taken on my brother’s wedding day, there are thirteen members of my family. Today, only three of us are alive, me, my younger sister and one cousin. My parents, my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, my older brother and sister, and my young cousin are all dead. Other cousins, close friends, and lastly and most importantly, my lifelong partner, at least 45 years worth of my life, are also gone. Somehow or other, I remain, still living and managing to lead a decent life. From the good things to the bad, I have also become realistic.
The overall state of the world today feels like the worst hard time to me right now, exacerbated by the absence of my partner, who made shouldering the load so much easier. Now I think of the tough, scary things on the small personal scale, the deaths of many friends, coming in clusters these days as we reach more fragile ages, coupled with the political climate in which a popular autocratic movement, which limits human rights and is fraught with nativism and racism, seems like the worst hard time. Add in the climate change disasters, the violence and mental instability in the culture, and those miserable nightmares certainly enhance the sense of the worst hard time. The war in Ukraine and the threat of nuclear weapons thrown in that mix? I’m remembering the air raid drills of my childhood and wondering how we got back there? I watched the Ken Burns series called “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” which echoes with the same prejudicial attitudes I’m hearing now, attitudes that stretch back centuries, not simply the 20th century. Everyone should watch that series. Why are so many still back there?
Realistically, I can’t do much about these weighty problems. I can vote and encourage others to vote. I can march. I can donate money to causes which are diametrically opposed to these throwback movements that would eliminate democracy. I don’t know yet what will undo my lifetime crafting of maintaining my stability when hard times come crashing in, uninvited. Will it be when I’m no longer healthy and able? Will the outside world finally shove me over the edge? Michael and I always felt that the one thing which would be the impossible for us would be the loss of our child, either one. Thankfully, so far, I haven’t had that most terrifying challenge. For now, I guess that all I can do is keep going toward the problem, wet bathing suit or not. I held Ruth’s hand while we waited for her son. I wrote an obituary for my old friend with no family of her own, because I’ve written my share before. One little act at a time, a good thing that came from the bad things that made me practical and realistic. Except I sure wish I could get Michael back. I can’t figure out any remedy for that one.