I have been thinking a lot lately about how I want to age.
I mean, I’m already aging, obviously. I’m a grandmother. I’m retired. My hair is 90% white.
But I think about how I want to proceed through the next part of my journey. How I want to walk toward the exit. Do I want to move with dignity and humor towards that final exit, or do I want to go kicking and screaming?
It’s hard to say.
When I was a young woman of 23, newly married, and with all of life still spread out in front of me like a banquet, I got a job as an interpreter for Russian Jews who were leaving the Soviet Union to resettle in Boston. I helped people find apartments, set up utilities, and enroll in English classes. Mostly, though, I made appointments for the immigrants at Beth Israel and Children’s Hospitals, and I accompanied them to those visits.
I clearly remember one woman whose experience was both heartbreaking and terrifying. She had come to the U.S. with her husband and adult son, hoping to live a better life here in the States. But she had fallen ill on the journey from Leningrad to Boston, and I had taken her for several appointments to find out what was wrong.
I was with her when she had an MRI and a meeting with an oncologist. Through me, the doctor explained to the woman that she had an advanced cancer, and would need both surgery and chemotherapy. He left, and I waited with her as the staff prepared to admit her.
I remember that her face was puffy, her skin white and lined. In the few weeks of our acquaintance, I had found her to be unpleasant, angry and often critical. I can’t say that I liked this woman, although at that moment I felt profound sympathy for her situation.
As we waited, I tried to make conversation, but she was deep in her own misery, and didn’t respond. I remember that I stood beside her gurney, looking helplessly at her. I felt completely unsure of what to do or say.
She turned her head and looked at me. Straight into my eyes. Hers were dark, dark brown, filled with a bitter rage.
“Stop looking at me,” she snapped. “I was once young and beautiful, too.”
I didn’t know what to do, where to look, what to think. I was embarrassed by my youth, by my lack of awareness. I didn’t feel beautiful, I just felt afraid. I felt useless.
I crossed the room, leaving her alone. I leaned against the wall, silently wishing to be anywhere but where I was.
Forty years later, I still remember that woman, and how she faced her mortality and her age. I can still see the folds of puffy flesh that surrounded those venomous eyes. That she hated me in that moment is something I will never doubt.
I don’t want to be like her. I don’t want to face my aging or my death that way. I don’t want to pour bitterness onto those who are there to help.
Then I think of another woman. One that I’ve known for some twenty or so years. She is one of the smartest, most literate, most well read people that I have ever met. She loves her family, she loves her husband, she loves her life.
She grew up in rural Kentucky, but has lived for many years now in New England. She is a political activist, an active church member, a feisty, funny lady.
Now in her 90’s, this woman needs a walker to get around the assisted living facility where she resides with her husband. When we have been together at family events, she laughs off her frailty, bragging about how great it is to have a basket on her walker so she can carry her sweater or a good book. Recently she made her way slowly down the aisle of a theater where her grandson was performing. As she did, she chirped, “Get outta the way! Coming through!”
She doesn’t complain, or look constantly to the past, although she has surely seen her share of grief. She lives in the moment. She laughs. She enjoys her food and her wine and she comments on the beautiful weather. She stays up to date on what is happening in the world around her.
This woman also has lines on her face, and puffiness around her eyes. But she is absolutely beautiful, because all of the love in her soul shines out whether she wills it to or not.
I admire her so much. I want to be like her.
I think about those funny Appalachian apple dolls, the ones that wrinkle up into old people faces. I find myself walking around with a deliberate slight smile and raised eyebrows, just so I can age into a happy old apple doll.
So as I age, I am trying to be mindful of how I grow and change. I want to be the second woman in my story. I want to embrace everything and keep moving forward and keep on laughing at my increasingly creaky old self.
But sometimes, when the fibromyalgia flares up, or the vertigo hits, or the joints just ache, I find myself cranky and irritable. I find myself looking at the beautiful, carefree young women at the farmer’s market or the park. And I feel myself morphing, ever so slowly, into that first woman.
That’s when I force myself to laugh at me. To turn my wrinkles up to the sunshine, to remind myself that nobody gets out of this life alive and that every day lived is another good day.
If you see me out and about, I hope I look like a happy old Appalachian apple doll to you.