Growing old is hell. People say that a lot, but I don’t think that is true. Or at the very least, I don’t think that’s very clear. I think that when people say that, they mean being old is hell. Of course, I write that as the reluctant, accidental care-giver of a 90-year-old woman.
Maybe I am the one who is lacking clarity, so let me explain where I am coming from on all this.
We are born and we grow and grow and grow, and eventually, we reach a point where we start growing old. If we are lucky—or just smart—we keep growing even after we realize we are aging. For example, my fine vision is shot! Around the time you turn 40, people start warning you about how that will happen, and then it does! And if you are anything like me, you are caught by surprise no matter how many times others have warned you. So, you realize you aren’t as young as you once were, but you still try new things, you still learn, you still live and so, you are growing. That doesn’t sound like hell to me.
So, your back aches, your body makes creaking noises, you can’t eat anything spicy after 4 pm if you want to sleep at night, and all these things remind you that you aren’t 18, but you feel like you are 18 when you aren’t aching, creaking, or complaining of indigestion. You think you are 18 until you reach for your reading glasses or your doctor writes an order for a mammogram or a colonoscopy or some other test you would never have as a routine at 18. Yes, you believe you are 18 until you walk past a mirror and are reminded, “Oh, yeah.”
Then, I look at my mother-in-law. She isn’t growing old. She is old. A tooth broke off in her mouth and she swallowed it without knowing. Her body is permanently bent in a hunched-over seated position. She can’t stand by herself and walking is out of the question. She isn’t sure how long she has lived with us, but she knows she doesn’t like it. She forgets her husband is dead. She calls us all by names that belong to someone else. She can’t wipe her own bottom or brush her own teeth. She has stopped producing saliva, and so her diet is mostly limited to soup and soft, mashed fruit. I’m pretty sure she knows she’s not 18.
Tonight, after I spoon-fed her broccoli soup for supper, she mumbled to me—something incoherent. I asked her to repeat what she said because I wanted to respond appropriately, and she because frustrated, exasperated, angry. Her eyebrows were arched, and she shook the back of her hand at me. “You! You! You!” Yes, me, me, me…what did I do? Nothing, I’m sure. She is angry at her condition–the condition of being old, and I am exhausted as the result of caring for someone who is old.
Yes, I know I sound melodramatic when I say that if I had to choose between living as she has for the past 21 months or dying today, I’d likely choose dying today. And yes, of course, I know I am saying that I would rather not see my children grow up than to be old. And, yes, it is sad when someone with young children dies. I’m sure they would miss me, but on the bright side, they would never have to care for me. Their spouses would never have to care for me. If they knew what I know, they would thank me for choosing to die young over being old. At least, that is how I feel at this moment.
Of course, we don’t get a choice—and perhaps that’s for the best. We all know people who are 90, even 100, and physically fit and mentally sharp. I think that if I could be guaranteed that I would never need someone else to take care of my physical needs and that if I could remain lucid and mentally capable, I would love to grow very, very old—because at that point, regardless of one’s chronological age, it’s still growing old, not being old. There’s still journey in those steps, not arrival.
Being old is hell. Growing old is just life.