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. 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?