Not a Machine

My body is not a temple. It’s not a wasteland, either, or a castle, or any other locational metaphor I can think of. It’s a body, and frankly I tend to treat it like a machine. I take moderately good care of it–I don’t eat terribly (I’m fortunate that I like almost all healthy foods except liver and hard boiled eggs). I live a modestly active life–I walk a lot. I try to read and stay involved with the world (there’s a heartbreak) and to laugh as much as possible (I am helped in this by an extraordinarily silly family). But all the laughter and eating healthy and spending 45 minutes on the elliptical does not alter the fact that I’m getting older. I’m not trying to stay young–that’s a mug’s game. I’m just trying to optimize what I have.

My father made it to just-shy-of-98. His twin made it to 100. My mother died relatively young, but she had health complications that made it, well, unsurprising. But her sister is 97. Genetics-wise, and barring speeding vehicles, falling pianos, or illnesses I can’t currently anticipate, I may be around for a while, yet. And so I keep using what I have. Of course, what I have is not what I used to have, I forget that sometimes.

Case in point: this weekend my daughter and her husband moved. Discovery of several rooms-worth of black mold made this not just a good idea but an imperative. My husband and I drove up to help, and spent about eight hours packing things, carrying heavy things, and (in his case) driving a truck to and from storage. The move was complicated by the fact that my daughter had hurt her back and couldn’t lift anything (well, she could and did, but every time she did her body informed her that this was a dumb idea). I climbed up and down stairs (and was grateful to have remembered to bring my knee brace). After a few hours of standing in the kitchen packing dishes I had to take off my shoes: my feet hurt. I carried some boxes I probably shouldn’t have. But the work had to get done, and I did my part. But every now and then the thought occurred to me: this used to be a lot easier. A lot easier.

The bill started to come due on the drive home, when my entire body hummed with exhaustion, the knee brace was squishing my leg, and my feet ached no matter whether I had shoes on or off. It took about 36 hours–and two good nights of sleep–to restore me to my usual level of reckless activity. But I am reminded again that, while I tend to treat my body like a machine–oil it, fuel it, make sure it’s running smoothly, surely it’ll run forever–it’s not a machine. (Hell, even a well-tended machine has a useful lifespan, after which it’s–what? a museum display?) My new resolution is not just to hear what my body is telling me, but actually listen. I’m in it for the long game, maybe another 20-30 years, during which time what I have won’t be what I used to have. My goal, in the words of Spencer Tracy in Pat and Mike, is that “what’s there is cherce.”

 

Meeting Julie Again

My mother (left) and Aunt Julie, sometime in 1953.

I just returned from a flying visit to my Aunt. She is my mother’s sister, and my favorite aunt (my father had five sisters, all fiercely accomplished, but none of them were as flat-out lovable as Julie; I’m not sure that was their goal). The thing about her is that she was also fiercely accomplished: she had an extraordinarily complex job at UCLA for a couple of decades, and oversaw the switch from analog to digital communication and records. She married a marvelous guy, a professor of anatomy who very sensibly thought the sun shone out of her every pore Together they traveled the world and had adventures and made friends–and yet managed to be intensely private and very happy to be by themselves or with the handful of people they loved best. My brother and I were fortunate enough to be on that short list.

Ten years ago my aunt was the sharpest, funniest woman you ever met, able to balance details and organize troops, and make the troops love it. My mother, half-kidding, used to call her “Mrs. Megaphone,” but my aunt rarely raised her voice or got angry. Charm, a sense of humor, and a to-do list and organizational systems made it easy for her to get what she needed to get done, done.

Then my uncle got sick, and for perhaps five years their world got smaller and a smaller, and she became more wrapped up in my uncle as the inevitability of losing him became clearer. After he died she was devastated. She was still perfectly lovely, but broken. She didn’t return phone calls or letters much, she withdrew, and increasingly relied on the assistance of her marvelous housekeeper. And her memory started to fray. It was sort of a perfect storm: her hearing isn’t good, but she never remembers to wear her hearing aids, and when she does she doesn’t wear them long because she’s not used to them, and they annoy her. She used to have an iron organizational grip on the business of their house, but during her husband’s illness she’d put a lot of that aside, and while she expected to go back to it, she just never did. She didn’t want to see many people–family and the occasional friend who wouldn’t take no for an answer. So mental stimulation took a hit. Then COVID struck, and she was necessarily housebound. She is now 97 and unable to live without help–which thank God and all the fish she can afford.

My family went down to visit her over Christmas. My younger daughter lives in the same building as Julie and is sort of my agent in place. My older daughter and my husband hadn’t seen her recently, so they were expecting the Julie of a few years ago–sharp and funny and able to keep up with most of our rat-a-tat badinage. They wanted her to be the Julie of ten years ago. So do I. ¬†Until this visit, when I found myself letting that go.

When my uncle was so sick, I was there to support them both in whatever way I could (as their whole family was). But I have come to realize that in some part of my brain I believed that after he died, and after she’d processed the terrible loss, I’d get my aunt of ten years ago back. And I’d been mourning the fact that that isn’t going to happen–which is not unreasonable, perhaps. But that mourning was getting in the way of my enjoying the aunt that I have. She’s still funny, she’s still immensely lovable, she lights up when the people she loves arrives. We don’t have long conversations anymore–it would be more like a monologue, with her trying to catch up. This trip, for the first time, I just sat there, responding when she said something, talking a little, holding her hand. When my daughter came by we clowned around, which utterly delighted her, which in turn, utterly delights me. Somehow, rather than holding on to the person my aunt was, on this visit I was able to just be with the person she is. And it was swell.

My father made to not-quite 98, and had all his faculties until the last week or so when he was actively dying. I’d like to live as long and stay as sharp as he did. But nothing is guaranteed. If I live that long but am not as sharp, I’d like to be like my aunt, full of love and joy, and grateful for the people around her who love her.