The Privilege of Having a Truly Old Person in my Life, and What I Can Learn

I just returned from lengthy trips through Spain, Portugal, Brazil, and Mexico. In those countries, the old world infrastructure is pervasive —cobblestoned streets, narrow sidewalks, showers stalls designed for Jack Sprat (sorry — not his wife), and ancient, uneven walking surfaces.

Then there are the stairs…lots of them. It takes a good deal of core strength and balance to successfully navigate the old world, or even the new one. When I feel that strength, I am reminded that having a senior in my life, even one as impaired as my 93 year old mom, is a blessing.

I understand that may sound strange at first blush, as mom has been unable to walk for about six months now. Before the wheelchair she could hobble short distances with a cane, and farther with a walker. She had some independence.

No more.

Now it takes two people who are trained in “transfers” to move her from her wheelchair to the toilet, bed, or wheelchair capable vehicle, and she has to be pushed to go anywhere, even to the bathroom. She is completely dependent on others now.

Worse still is her cognitive decline, which is remarkable in the worst way. This brilliant, curious, disputatious woman, a math major and 70’s era computer programmer, one who taught her six children to challenge everything and who was a world traveler herself, is now a shadow of her former self. I wrote about her mental decline in my piece “Mom the Christmas Tree,” and her lights continue to go out, one by one.

My sisters are troubled by mom’s decline, but not me. Once I accepted that decline and death was unavoidable, I accepted mom for who she is at this moment in time. “No use tripping over the same stone twice,” mom used to say, and so I don’t. Mom will decline, mom will die, and so will I. I accept it.

Acceptance of death has a blessed side effect ~ the joy of life. The Zen buddhists even teach a death meditation so that we will not be afraid of death. They teach us to savor every moment, even the “hard” ones.

Whenever I navigate a narrow, uneven sidewalk with confidence, reach for a grocery bag, jump out of a car, or run the vacuum, I think about mom in her chair and am grateful of my core strength and balance. Whenever I make crisp decisions in a strange, chaotic situation (that is, most of my life), I am grateful for my presently sharp mental faculties. I am thankful I am me, and that’s a good thing. The Buddhists are on to something.

Take a little trip with me.

There is an ancient, dimly lit crypt located beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini in Rome, Italy. I have been there. It contains thousands of human bones displayed in all sorts of fantastic ways, such as mosaics and chandeliers. The Catholic Order responsible for the crypt, the Capuchins, insist the displays are not meant to be macabre, but rather a silent reminder of the swift passage of life on Earth, and of our own mortality.

For me, the most memorable part of the crypt is the last chapel, deep inside the crypt, where one finds three skeletons in repose, still clothed in their monks robes. Between them is a placard written in five languages. It reads:

“What you are now, we used to be. What we are now, you will be.”

This is a good lesson, but one doesn’t need to travel to Rome to learn it. Just hang out with a person in their end-of-life passage and it’ll come to you. Then you will learn what spiritually minded people like the Buddhists and the Catholics have been trying to teach us for millennia: Make the most of this moment, because it’s the only moment you’ve got. Be thankfully for it, for you never know when your moments will end.

It’s true. The bones teach us.


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