This past week, I’ve spread thirty-two bags of cypress mulch in my garden. I’ve also chalked up the first mow of spring with my “the-only-power-behind-this-push-mower-is-me” machine, that I bought in my effort to reduce my carbon footprint. I’m in my second year with that optimistic choice – I guess I’ll see how long I can keep using it. I babysat for my baby granddaughter several days running, went swimming, took a few long walks and started watching Ben-Hur with my twelve year old grandson. Then there’s the daily stuff like laundry, dishes, gardening and cleaning. All in all I’d say I’m pretty active. But my birthday dictates that it’s time for my annual Medicare wellness check. And with that came a pre-appointment phone call during which I was asked a lengthy series of questions about my overall well-being at this stage of my life.
Many of the questions were routine like “ what medications do you take,” or “do you smoke?” It feels more peculiar when you’re asked if you brush your teeth or if you need help using a telephone or if you can manage shopping and paying your bills. Those latter queries are unsubtle hints that you may be moving into that part of life in which not only your physical competency is at issue, but also your mental abilities. Although so far I feel I’m doing pretty well for a person in my eighth decade of life, I’m aware that my peak condition is behind me. I don’t think about that every day but I certainly was after that phone call.
The actual appointment was even more bizarre. After reviewing my answers from the online questionnaire, the intake physician’s assistant next gave me three words which I had to repeat back to her. Then I was asked to draw a circle and turn that into a clock face. I was told to make the clock face indicate ten minutes past eleven. Not surprisingly, when I finished that assignment, I was asked to repeat the three words I was given earlier. They were, by the way, banana, sunrise and chair. While responding to this person recording my answers, in my mind I felt like my hair was on fire. How am I suddenly being evaluated for dementia? I couldn’t think of a single thing which would indicate I was losing my faculties, other than the fact that I’m in that magic age group that signals the slide into oblivion. Kind of like being in the Covid death group. Although I suspect that millions of people are doing their best to defy, or at least ignore the fact that half the people in this country will die before they reach their median life expectancy, from a medical standpoint, I’m standing on shifting sands. How about that?
One of my recent garden photos seems like the perfect metaphor for this curious moment in time. Consider the daffodil. The corona, the cup-like center of the blossom, is still full and vibrant. But the edges of the petals are drying out, curling in on themselves. For those of us who get this far in life, subtle demarcation points from our prime physical life, much like the wilting petals on that daffodil, are right in front of our faces. Think wrinkles, sagging skin and what my dermatologist calls wisdom spots, rather than what my dad used to say were liver spots on his hands. Yeah, liver spots and all that liver implies. I think most people slough off those signs, their slightly fraying edges, focusing instead on the vibrance still alive at the core of us. At least I hope so. For me, not particularly alarmed at this moment about my impending but unpredictable, possibly avoidable, but most likely, inexorable decline, I paused for a moment to reflect on what I can still definitely remember. I wound up deciding to organize some of my best memories, moments that I rarely think about any more and that I’ve rarely uttered aloud. They stem from a random Facebook post by a family member.
One of my nieces is a combination massage therapist/yoga instructor/life coach. She has a significant social media presence on which she frequently posts inspirational memes and thought-provoking questions. I read them all but rarely share my responses as I feel that a)I’m not exactly in her target audience, and b) I don’t usually post my feelings on anyone else’s sites. I do often think about her prompts though. Recently, she simply asked a question.
I’ve been revisiting that question for the last two months. Truthfully, I remember more about nice things that people have said to me, rather than hearing someone repeat a kind comment someone made about me. In fact, the only comment about me that stands out in my memory is one my mother repeated to me. After my cousin’s wedding she told me that my uncle, her brother, mentioned that he was upset and alarmed about my weight at the event. I couldn’t remember what hurt most, the fact that he’d told her that, or the fact that she’d found it necessary to tell me. Regardless, I never felt wholly safe around either of them after that, although to be fair, I think I weighed the most I ever have at that point in my life. My tragic flaw, my cross to bear, the fact of my imperfect body, sometimes more imperfect than at other times. Oh well. Everyone has an issue, at least one, if not many. The lucky ones make life work well anyway.
I’m fortunate to have had the preponderance of what’s been said to me, to be positive and flattering. Of course I’ve also heard my share of zingers that still hurt many years after they initially stung me. Life’s interesting that way. As I wandered through my memories, I realized that even the sweetest comments could often carry a more acidic layer in the folds of their meaning. I think back to 1970, a year into my relationship with Al, my first true love, the person with whom at the time, I’d thought was my forever life partner. One morning, lying in bed, he told that I had a remarkably athletic body. Meant as a compliment, I felt crushed by its negativity, thinking it implied that I was decidedly not an attractive, sexy partner, which in my young, insecure and inexperienced days, was what I really wanted to be. Instead that image evoked smelly socks and muscles in the wrong places. I was indeed athletic, but where I was mentally back then, evoked shame and made me feel less womanly. All that sounds so hollow and stupid now, but I was a teenager in the days when women’s sports were not even recognized by my high school, not a women’s team in sight, aside from cheerleaders and a few swimmers. Such a dissonant memory for me, the person who is the proud mother of a fierce multi-sport daughter who was an active player throughout her life and admired for it. Things are still not perfect for women but they’re certainly better now than fifty years ago.
Years later, long after Al and I were quite over, he came back to see me, to try one more time to see if we could start over. He said he’d matured and now appreciated the depth of our relationship without being afraid. He told me then that never in his life had he made a passionate connection with any woman but me. Years earlier I’d have given anything to here such powerful confession. But that moment had passed and instead of joy, I felt flattered but mostly sad. As the saying goes, timing is everything. My mom would have said, “a day late and a dollar short.” Still I never forgot what he said although it was more a relic of another time than anything else.
My kids have both said some pretty great things to me in my life, well beyond the “I love you’s.” My son recently told me that I had the highest emotional intelligence of anyone he’d ever met. My daughter told me that when I die, no one will ever have known her as completely as I did. Adult children can make a parent feel like a success or a failure. To have navigated all the complicated chapters of life’s stages with kids, and have them appreciate you despite all the bumps in the journey, is pretty satisfying. I’m fortunate to still play a significant role in their lives. And I haven’t forgotten the lovely things they’ve told me.
My continued intellectual growth is important to me. One of my life goals has been the pursuit of learning. The idea of becoming mentally stale really bothers me. Despite my age I seek out new subjects, stimulating myself with classes covering an inexhaustible number of topics. I took Mark Twain’s quote about not letting education interfere with learning pretty seriously. I’ve had a fair number of people compliment me on intelligence and I willingly admit that being reinforced for what is my deep personal pleasure feels really satisfying. But the truth is that none of those nice things are what I choose as the one with the most impact on my life. After much thought I realize that the absolute nicest and best thing anyone ever said inevitably came from my Michael, my life partner and deepest love.
But, without a doubt, Michael, who knew me better than anyone else in my life, said so many memorable, nice words to me. From the earliest moments of our deep friendship through our subsequent love story, I knew that to be as wholly seen as I was by him, and ultimately accepted for the entirety of who I was, would always be the greatest gift I could imagine. Throughout the course of our many decades together, I was lucky enough to hear all the words I think most people wish for from their loved one. Michael made me feel beautiful and desirable. He regularly both spoke to, and wrote to me, describing my best attributes as friend, a lover, a partner, a wife and a mother. He created a secure, safe and warm place for me, an invaluable support system and haven. But truly, I think the nicest thing he ever said to me wasn’t about any of the romantic private topics in our partnership. From as early on as I can recall, I felt significantly responsible for taking care of my parents, particularly my mother. The line between parent and child had blurred many times when I was growing up, as I was exposed to information that made me feel that my familial job was to be happy, competent and always ready to jump in to protect mom and dad, who’d had a tough go in their lives. That felt like a heavy burden to me, one that nagged at me like the threat of an undertow in water. One day, a couple of years into my relationship with Michael, I was worrying aloud, as I frequently did. I told him that my unexpectedly powerful feelings for him were so strong, that I couldn’t imagine what I’d do if he and my mom were both drowning – how could I save both of them? He didn’t mock me for sounding ridiculous. He just looked at me and calmly replied, “save your mother – I’ll save myself.” I still remember how stunning that sounded. Someone was actually telling me that I didn’t always have to be responsible for taking care of him, giving me permission to for once, be off the hook. I was flooded with gratitude and relief. Of all the things anyone, including Michael, has ever said, I still think that one was the nicest and definitely, the most liberating one. I’ve thought of it frequently over the years, a moment that set me free.
So here I am, at the end of an interesting week. I still have my wits about me and my memories are intact. I can finally dispose of the “nicest thing” question I’ve been mulling over. I don’t know how long I’ll be functioning in the competent realm but I’m not going to worry about it. I have six more bags of mulch to spread tomorrow and the spring garden is looking great.