Friday, August 19, 2011

The Inconvenience of Ageing

Some years back, on the eve of school resuming after summer holidays, my six-year old was visibly distressed. As far as I could tell, he had very little to worry about. My desire for routine's return mingled with the sadness I would feel as my children left the following morning.  But now this stood in the way of a peaceful evening.

A lump swelled somewhere between my throat and belly. I scratched about for positive responses, but the promise of rekindled friendships and games were no match for his angst. This boy-child had never been comfortable with change, and yet his intensity troubled me.

I tucked us both into bed and we lay in his darkened room. I recited A.A Milne, sang funny songs, and willed him to breathe deeply. But I could elicit no remedy. We lay in silence for a time. ‘Grade One is going to be great,’ I told him. But his response revealed deep fear: ‘Mummy, it’s going to get harder and harder every day, and there’s nothing I can do about it.’

He is right of course. Societal expectations increase relentlessly for most of our years. Ability brings independence, demanding responsibility as part of the bargain. But autonomy lasts only as long as a body can keep pace.  In ageing our physical limitations are linked to pride. Independence bleeds into dependence once more.  

Today I watched a woman getting into a car. It was no simple undertaking. She leant on a walking stick, and held onto a companion with her other arm as they shuffled across a carpark. She was, I imagined, in her mid 70s, although her incapacity may have pulled the wool over my eyes. As they neared the car, a third woman emerged from it. At every step in the process the two helped their friend into the vehicle until she finally settled in her seat. At one point they all laughed. Patience was the champion.

When I am sick or injured, I find it perpetually frustrating, but it dawned on me today that at some stage of life my physical abilities will not return: the ability to play sport, to play music, the walk a distance, to feed or wash myself, to tie my laces, or drive, or use the toilet.  I wonder how I'll go with that.

My boy-child is quite right: it does get harder and harder. But the lessons change. Eventually the responsibilities that come with aging require some relinquishment of independence. Such a painful dose of humility and self-reflection is, I am certain, the most difficult change of all.

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