Let me say this. When someone says, “She’s ninety-two? That’s amazing. My aunt lived to be a hundred and one!” everyone around us exclaims “God bless her!”, implying this is such a great thing. Inside, I’m thinking, “That’s horrible. Don’t tell me that. I don’t wanna hear we might be doing this for another nine years.”
I feel terrible for thinking this, but I do.
Not only do I not want my mother-in-law to live to 97 or 100 or whatever, I myself don’t want to live that long. I don’t.
When I start failing, I want to go quick. And I want to go before things get ugly. But let’s say I do experience a long, slow decline. In that case, I want to have trained my mind so well that I will be gracious, I will be present as much as possible, and I will treat all aides and family members who help me with gratitude and tenderness. Common sense says I probably won’t. It’s just as likely I will be a big pain in the ass, unreasonable and bent on fighting my benefactors. So then what?
Why oh why do we work to extend our lives? Seems to me like it’s diminishing returns for everybody. Currently, I take no medications — not for blood pressure, or cholesterol, nothing. There is a little niggle in me that says, “Don’t ever start.” Not with one single medication. Why? Because that will be artificially lengthening my life — the first step in a series of steps designed to stretch me out into the torture of extreme old age. Who wants that? Nobody. It’s a prison sentence — for you and everyone who cares for you.
I want to live long enough to see my grandchildren grow up, yes. Of course I do. I want to live long enough to love and be useful to my loved ones. But once I start trying to brush my teeth with the phone bill or putting the dirty laundry in the oven, it’s time to go.
Seems like a real ego trip to want to live longer than you’re meant to. Just like it’s an ego trip to want to look younger than you’re meant to. But that’s where my argument falls apart. If I’m intent on saying “Hey. Here’s my face at 63. Deal with it,” then shouldn’t I be willing to say, “Here’s my decomposing psyche, my failing body. Deal with it.”?
Wait. No. That IS my argument. Let me fall apart. Don’t minimize the effects of it so I can last longer. If the heart is no longer able to keep up, let it falter till it fails. Don’t introduce artificial drugs to smooth over the truth of my condition.
But baked into those statements is a fantasy of a quick death. Clutching my chest and keeling over with X’s for eyes. That would be the easy way out. Where do I stand with regard to the gradual loosening of bowel control? Or the incremental descent into Alzheimers? If there is a medication that cures incontinence or calms a violent nature, wouldn’t I want to take it, for the sake of my caregivers? If I am ambulatory enough to wander out into traffic, are they supposed to just let me do it?
This is the mother of all moral conundrums. There aren’t any good answers.
The truth is, I feel good taking care of my mother-in-law. I just wish I could do it without her yelling at me all day long, furious, that “IT’S NOT FAIR THAT YOU HAVE TO DO THIS. GO HOME!” That is her wrathful way of acknowledging the difficulty of the situation. Although she is treated with incredible respect and love by her daughter and me, the nature of her disease, combined with her very advanced age, necessitate the loss of privacy, agency, and some of her dignity. She rages incessantly against all of it. But really, who could blame her?
Can I learn from this? Can I step out of the reactivity of Not Wanting to Get As Old As She Is and learn from this difficulty? I don’t know. But I do know that, no matter how old I get (or don’t get), the work will lie in remaining present without a story about how it should be. That’s the work.
I can want what I want all day long. I can want a happy mother-in-law. I can want great health to the end of my own life. I can want free education, equal pay for equal work, and socialized medicine for all.I can want what I want all day long. But it’s who I am when I don’t get it that really counts. That’s who I need to get to know. That’s who I need to embrace, knowing I’m doing the very best I know how to do. And whether I’m giving brilliant dharma talks to thousands in my old age, or raging in my underwear at the aide who’s trying to help me get dressed, that’s the one I have to learn to love. Tenderly, unconditionally, and with my whole heart.