My grandma has always been a sun that pulled everyone else into her orbit. Bright and brilliant, gifted and glamorous, I grew up hearing stories of how she began playing Chopin as a girl, soloed with the Utah Symphony in high school, and went on to become a professional musician and teacher.

She was also always dying. Diagnosed with severe kidney disease at age 30, doctors gave her two years to live. She did what anyone would do with limited time—she lived it to the fullest.

Then she kept living. Years, and more years, all the time haunted by the specter of a youthful death. All the time living hard and trying to squeeze out every drop of experience.

When I was young, I wanted to age like my grandma. She rolled down hills, laughed often and loud, teased and played and glittered. I thought she was the definition of aging gracefully. It’s only now that I realize how misguided I was. I didn’t realize at the time that Grandma hadn’t started to age yet—not really. I thought of her as old only because of my relationship to her, not because she actually was.

Watching her over the past few months, I’ve made a few mental notes to myself:

Don’t get a dog.

If it matters who gets it, give it away while you’re alive.

Be ready to leave your house sooner than you think you need to.

Believe people when they tell you what is real.

She doesn’t remember her sister-in-law. She’s not sure who her some of her neighbors are. She doesn’t recognize her doctor. But she can still tell stories about her piano professor, can still hear his voice telling her to watch the rhythm in her left hand.

Last week I got a call at 10 p.m. from my mom. She was in California—her first night on vacation. “I hate to ask this,” she said, “but I’ve been trying to call Grandma every fifteen minutes since eight o’clock and she’s not answering. I’m afraid she’s fallen or is sick or something. Can you go over and check on her?”

My mom is now in the fourth and final round of parental caretaking. She has already watched the slow decline of my dad’s dad, my dad’s mother, and her own father. But this—this no one had ever considered. Her eternally youthful mother who had cheated death for fifty years was not supposed to dwindle. She was supposed to be gone in an instant, in a heartbeat. The cloud of becoming motherless, a cloud my mom has lived with most of her life, is now finally lowering in earnest and it’s a slow, black shadow. Not the expected lightning. We are all feeling the chill.

“I’m sure she’s fine, Mom,” I say, wanting to reassure her, wanting her to be able to relax and let go a little.

“I know, but I won’t be able to sleep unless I know she’s not over there lying on the floor,” she says.

So I grab a flashlight, find my key to Grandma’s house, and head over. I tell myself the entire way that nothing is wrong, that she’s probably just watching TV. But when I enter her neighborhood, my stomach twists at the tiny thought that I might find her on the floor. As I pull around the corner, I see the lights on in her house and feel a little better.

I’m afraid of frightening her by coming so late. When I unlock the door, I see her in the kitchen, her red satin pajamas half buttoned, her hair wild. The house smells like old furniture and stale dog urine.

“Hi Grandma,” I say sheepishly.

“I thought you were the boogey man!” she says.

I tell her why I came. She’s been playing the piano for the past two hours and couldn’t hear the phone. “I had to get through all of my Chopin,” she says.

“Did you make it?” I ask.

“Almost.”

Almost. Her hands are shaking.

It’s indescribably sad to watch her lose herself. She’s lost so many things—keys, bills, hearing aids, pills. A husband. Her sense of reality. Her whirlwind personality, her brilliant spirit, is fighting, fighting, fighting against the confusion, but the struggle makes it harder. There is no peace. There is no lying down, no going softly. “I will live my life my way,” she insists. My mom keeps waiting for a point at which things will get easier, a point where she won’t remember that she’s no longer home, that the dogs are gone, that she used to play Chopin under the lights with a symphony.

I no longer want to age like my grandma. But I’m terrified that I will.

Have you been able to find grace in all the varieties of aging?

October 20, 2010

25 Comments

  1. dalene

    October 19, 2010

    Such a lovely post, Melissa. Thank you. I’ve thought a lot about this, but it would require paragraphs to explain (father dying young, so many grandparents younger than they should be, stretching their lives into the 90s–those things shape you). But you’ll have to check back with me in a few decades as to my own aging. For now all I can say is I’ve embraced every new decade with a heady “bring it!” I don’t color my grey. Each scar has a story. Each heartache makes me stronger. And even though there are days arthritis slows my step, I work really hard not to let it curb my enthusiasm or my joy. I hope I will say the same 10, 20, 30 and 40 years from now.

  2. Lucy

    October 19, 2010

    No words. Just… no words. Breaks my heart.

  3. Mendy

    October 19, 2010

    I don’t think I will age gracefully. I’m a bit cantankerous already. I color my hair all the time, I still shop in the Juniors section, and I still listen to music way too loud.

    When I was 9 my grandma told me that she may look old, but her heart and mind were still very young. She listed all of the things she would do, including skateboarding, if her body would allow it. I thought she was CRAZY. Crazy and old. But now (obviously) I get what she was saying.

    I do know that watching all of my grandparents age and then finally pass away, I’ve seen how differently age affects each individual. Like you, I’ve got a mental list of do and don’ts. The big one on top of the list in bold letters is: Make sure your family knows how you want to be cared for before you can’t make that decision yourself.

    Thanks for a beautiful post. (Do people tell you that you look like your grandma? I saw the resemblance immediately:)

  4. Melissa Y.

    October 19, 2010

    Mendy, I would love to think that I look like my grandma! No one has ever said we look alike, maybe because our ages are so different.

    I think we all fight age in our own way–loving our grays or coloring them, shopping in juniors or embracing polyester. It’s usually more about how we feel than how we look.

    But I do know that eventually it will all be beyond my control. I’ve watched my grandparents all age very differently also, and it’s losing my mind that frightens me most. Wrinkles just don’t matter. But like Dalene said, the alternative is to die at a younger age. Someday you’ll have to write those paragraphs for us, Dalene.

  5. Jenni Lee

    October 19, 2010

    How wonderful that she lived so long!

  6. MelissaPete

    October 19, 2010

    Your post is a beautiful tribute to your grandma. I didn’t get the full picture of the idea that our spirit resides in our body until I started aging. I have always believed that my spirit resided in my body, it’s just when my body started getting older, I got the whole picture. While dancing in a production recently (with young adult girls who could have been my daughters) I could feel my young, vibrant spirit inside while I felt the aches and pains in my physical body. I’m only in my 40’s, but I would imagine this youthful spirit stays exactly that way as we age. I can picture what your grandma feels inside, and I can also imagine the frustration she probably feels.

    I’m still trying to find peace with aging. I have many great examples around me, the best of which is my husband. At 47 he still has full-blown nerf gun fights with my daughters. The man is truly a kid-at-heart. I want to be that way. I know it was hard for my in-laws and my mom to age with grace as their bodies gave out on them. We want to maintain some dignity as we age, but it seems harder and harder to do that depending on our circumstances.

    I do know from experience that this time in your grandma’s life is short. You won’t remember this in the years to come–you’ll remember the great stuff. The longer my parents and in-laws are gone the greater my memories of them have been from those best parts of their lives. I’m hoping to live well now so that my children will remember the great stuff later on and pass those memories on to my grandkids. I guess living well is the best way to age gracefully. 😀

  7. jendoop

    October 19, 2010

    Your post is beautifully written and brings back memories of my grandpa who slowly died. The last time I visited him I cried to see his body so emaciated. He dealt with dementia for years so I didn’t expect him to know me. When I began to cry his dazed stupor focused, he looked at me with those gorgeous blue eyes and reached out his hand. He was there, even though his body made it so difficult for his spirit to observe and interact with the world. It was wonderful gift to look into his eyes and know that he recognized me that last time even if he couldn’t speak.

    I don’t delude myself with thinking I can control how I age. What I do have control over is how I take what comes. I want to always hold God’s hand and trust him through it all. I won’t try to end my life early, even in the face of a wasting disease, because I trust God’s plan – even if it is for me to suffer.

    I won’t make my children promise exactly how to care for me because that will put burdens on them that I can’t foresee. I will trust them to love me and care for me the best they can.

    I won’t obsess over living in my own house because it is a just a house and I’ve moved enough that I know safety and happiness can be found anywhere.

    I will try to the very end to find something worthwhile in each day. Even if it is only the beauty of the sunset.

  8. Michelle Glauser

    October 19, 2010

    How wonderful that she still plays Chopin. I just finished working on today’s practicing of Chopin myself. 🙂

  9. Laurel C.

    October 19, 2010

    A beautiful post. Thanks, Melissa.

  10. Annette

    October 19, 2010

    This brought tears to my eyes, both in remembering my grandparents and in thinking of my own parents’ mortality. My dad is looking for and more how I remember my grandmother looking, and it tears me up inside to realize that yes, my parents are mortal, and someday, they won’t be here anymore.

  11. KLS

    October 19, 2010

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, Melissa. It’s only been a year or two since I realized I’m actually going to die someday. I mean, obviously I knew that, but I didn’t really know. And I know I don’t really know now, either, but I know a little more than I did before. I imagine I’ll keep knowing more and more as my body continues to age and deteriorate. It’s such a shock to realize I’m a young older person, instead of an older young person. I swear I’m still 15.

  12. Melissa M.

    October 19, 2010

    I feel the same way, Kathy (KLS). Except I’m not sure if I’m even a “young older person” anymore, having just turned 50 last week. Inside I still feel like I’m in my 20’s (so I’m still older than you are, Kathy, inside!). It is very difficult to reconcile my inside age with my outside age.

    Beautiful post, Melissa. And such a lovely tribute to your grandmother.

  13. Selwyn aka Kellie

    October 19, 2010

    Oh, she looks so beautiful and elegant!

    I’ve spent 10 weeks recently working with the aged in a nursing home – and some of them were just so graceful, lovely and amazing. Some, not so much – but I appreciated the individuality that they each had.

    Which is how I find grace in ageing – the grace to accept that this stage is just ‘now’, and what my body and self can do is directly related to that, and the gracefulness in using my body as it ages pertinent to its own abilities and preferences.

    Stunning post Melissa.

  14. Michelle L.

    October 19, 2010

    lovely writing Melissa.

    I don’t know. In some ways I envy your Grandma just for the sheer number of years she’s lived. People often say that my mom was lucky to die quickly so she didn’t have to suffer, but I wish she was still here.

  15. FoxyJ

    October 19, 2010

    This post really resonated with me. My husband’s 90-year-old grandmother moved in with his mom a few months ago. We were just visiting them on Sunday and it is so difficult lately. She doesn’t really remember us, she asks repeatedly who we are, calls my baby girl ‘he’, etc. To be honest, I feel bad for her because she has entered that stage in life where her spirit is obviously ready to leave her body. The change from a year ago in her appearance is drastic. On the one hand, my grandparents have all passed away much younger than 90 and it is amazing that she has lived so long. On the other hand, I know my mother-in-law and her siblings feel conflicted about the fact that their mother is ‘here’ and yet ‘not here’

  16. michelle

    October 19, 2010

    But I do know that eventually it will all be beyond my control.

    I’m trying to accept this reality before that reality really comes. In truth, none of us is in control. We just think we are. But ah, sweet, blissful ignorance of youth is something I find myself missing more often than I should. Chronic health issues have accelerated that learning for me, I think. I still fight it, though.

    This talk by Merrill J. Bateman really hit the message home to me that the deterioration of the body is very much a deliberate part of the plan. The section “Physical Strength During Mortality” is what is particularly relevant here, but the whole talk was good.

    This was a gorgeous piece, by the way.

  17. michelle

    October 19, 2010

    To be honest, I feel bad for her because she has entered that stage in life where her spirit is obviously ready to leave her body.

    This is something that has really shocked me at times. Sometimes leaving this earth is “labor” just as labor is required to get a spirit here in a body.

  18. Sharlee

    October 19, 2010

    Beautiful, beautiful post, Melissa. (And I see the resemblance too!)

    If you want to watch a wrenching film dealing with this whole issue, see “Away From Her.”

    My mother died too soon (shortly after her 70th birthday; my father died even too sooner–when he was 39–but that’s another story), but in a way I’m grateful she got to leave this ol’ world before things got too hard.

    I love life, but I have no fear of death.

  19. Sue

    October 20, 2010

    I am 58 years old now, and I already notice that my mind isn’t as sharp as it used to be, especially my memory. When I was young I had a surplus of capacity, and now I have just enough to do what I need to do (and that’s if I make and consult lists). My word recall is the pits, too. I now write with a thesaurus by my side…not because I don’t know the word I want (I always do know), but because I can’t think of it!

    It’s pretty annoying, but I’m working on accepting the new and ever-changing me. Que sera sera, right? All I can do is try to get on board with it and enjoy life as I am, in each cycle.

    I was moved by your post about your grandma. I hope I am loved and understood as well in my old age.

    And I hope you are fortunate enough to age differently.

    =)

  20. Kay

    October 20, 2010

    Growing old and incapacitated does worry me. My mother died at 63 after being ill for over a decade, for many weeks at the end she could neither speak nor move at all. She received constant care from my dad and my sisters who lived much nearer to her.I truly don’t want my children to go through what we all went through watching the deterioration, and being powerless to help.

    In my 40s I have bad arthritis. Some days I can barely get out of bed for the pain, especially in winter. There are days I am unable to turn on a tap, put on gloves, bear the weight of a samll tin can in my hands. Other days are fine, I just never know from day to day how it will be. I look at my children and wonder how things will turn out. I have to be able to look after them, drive them around, cook food etc on a daily basis and not just when I am well. They need me. I cannot think of being a burden and a worry to them while they are so young. Nobody plans to be ill. I did not see this coming in my life. So we carry on, ignoring it as best as we can, living life as much as we can. Not having a working body is one thing, but I cannot imagine not having a working mind. My mind is still free to plan and dream, to organise and achieve, to love.

  21. Kay

    October 20, 2010

    Having read my comment back I found that it sounds like a pity party, not what I had intended. What I wanted it to say is that I don’t want to get old and decrepid and it terrifies me. I am not growing older gracefully, but then I have never been particularly graceful at any age. I want to live and be happy with all that I can do.

  22. jenny

    October 20, 2010

    Melissa Y., lovely post.

    I don’t mind the wrinkles either or the sagging skin or the grey hair. I’m not looking forward to it, but I can accept that it WILL happen and there are worse things than that!

    I am worried about the mental faculties waining and the physical frailties and complications of age. I hope I can be “graceful” about that, but it frightens me.

    Michelle (#17)
    [To be honest, I feel bad for her because she has entered that stage in life where her spirit is obviously ready to leave her body.”
    This is something that has really shocked me at times. Sometimes leaving this earth is “labor” just as labor is required to get a spirit here in a body.]

    This is very interesting, the thought of laboring to die. My {dear, witty, beautiful, intelligent} grandma passed away a year ago and my aunt, who was with her that day, described it very much the same way.

    “It is hard work, dying and letting go.”

  23. Emily M.

    October 20, 2010

    I love this post. It makes me think of my grandma, who would love to go now, and was very alive for a long time. It also makes me think I need to savor this time when I am still young enough that my body doesn’t feel like it’s falling apart yet.

  24. Human Bean

    October 20, 2010

    It is so painful to watch the people you love grow older and sometimes forget who they are. My grandma, who I idolized, passed away just a few years ago. We watched her beautiful form slowly dissolve from the effects of osteoarthritis and Alzheimer’s disease. She gradually lost the ability to do all of the things that once defined her personality- sew, crochet, write, garden, read etc.) and began to wish daily that her spirit would float away. She used to say “I just wish I could go to sleep and wake up dead.” She never lost her sense of humor.

    There were so many things about her that were beautiful and graceful and humble- all the things I aspire to emulate in my own life. She maintained all of that beauty throughout the pains of her aging but there is one moment in particular that will always represent her true spirit to me. She had been in the hospital for several days before her body finally gave up. That night one of the nurses passed my sister and I in the hall and told us that our grandma was suffering from dementia (a common phase in the last days of life) but had been the most pleasant and content patient they had ever seen given her circumstances. She told us that when a person is lost in dementia they lose all inhibition and their true impulses take over. Just moments after our conversation in the hall we were sitting by Grandma’s bed when another nurse came in to do a routine blood draw. Grandma greeted him warmly “Hello Honey! Why don’t you come on in and sit a spell? Can I get you a drink?” He smiled and went about his duties of poking her bruised and raw tissue paper skin repeatedly. While he extracted viles of blood she chatted “Tell me about yourself. I just love when I get visitors. Can I make you a sandwich?”

    So, this is what sticks with me. It causes me to wonder- who am I really?

    I also loved the comment about leaving this world being the same kind of labor as coming in. In both cases the rewards are indescribable.

  25. bth

    October 25, 2010

    ” The cloud of becoming motherless, a cloud my mom has lived with most of her life, is now finally lowering in earnest and it’s a slow, black shadow. Not the expected lightning. We are all feeling the chill.”

    The most beautiful writing! Thank you for sharing that with us. Your grandma would want you to remember who she was not the shadow she now is.

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