Sunday, May 25, 2014

Climb every mountain

This week, we said goodbye to my husband's beloved grandmother Roselle, a loss that we'll no doubt feel deeply for years to come. Grammy was a remarkable woman who warmly welcomed me into the fold of her family and treated me as her own from the day we met, 17 years ago now. (I'll admit there was the tiniest bit of pressure to convert to Judaism once she knew her grandson and I were engaged. But once it was clear that it wasn't happening, she let it go. And if she was disappointed that I didn't give her any Jewish great-grandbabies, she never let on.) We were fortunate to have celebrated Grammy's 95th birthday with her just two months ago, which was a time not only of celebration but of reflection on a life that had been very well-lived, physically and otherwise. In the past couple of years, she had become frail after nine full decades of hale and health, and after struggling with that transition, she seemed to have reached a place of peace.

A geriatric social worker since my mid-20s, I've spent my entire adult life in the awed presence of the "oldest old," as they are known in the medical community. Theoretically, I know what it is to grow old, and I don't fear it the way many do. I think a lot about becoming - and eventually being - old, and consciously make decisions about how I live my life with the "end" in mind. If the day comes that I've lost much of my ability to function independently, I very much want to know that I got everything out of this body that I could have. I want to have eaten every delicious thing, visited every beautiful place, hugged every dear person, run every interesting place, and crossed every finish line that I reasonably could have. I am, meanwhile, mindful of the role that moderation plays in the living of a long and healthy life. So I don't actually eat every delicious thing. (Okay I usually do. But I don't go back for seconds. Usually.) My impulse is to travel constantly, but I know the importance of planning financially for old age, and so have learned to avoid the temptations of the New York Times travel section, and try to keep our annual vacation budget in check. There are dozens of races I would love to run every year, but out of respect for the limits of my ankles, knees, and hips, I give them lots of love and recovery time, and restrain myself. 

I see no reason to hold back when it comes to the hugs, though. Grammy certainly didn't. As she grew older, the logistics of the hugs changed, as we had to lean down to reach her in her chair to get them. But they remained big and plentiful until the end of her long life.

Bill Thomas, MD wrote a wonderful book called What Are Old People For? that is still well worth your time, even though I'm about to give you the answer: 

Young people are for doing. Old people are for being.

I couldn't agree more. Certainly there are exceptional old people who earn college degrees in their 80s, run marathons in their 90s, or work until they're 100. But most of us will be met with physical or cognitive limitations that make this kind of "doing" impossible. A good old age is, in my mind, one wherein we've successfully adapted to the functional limits of our bodies or brains, and recognized that while the ability to "do" may be waning, what the world really needs from us now is the unique "being" that only we can "be." By old age, we have become the holders of histories, the vehicles of values we hold dear, a connective glue binding family together. We know the stories and the secrets, and (I can't wait for this part) we have life pretty well figured out. Even in the presence of one who has lost the ability to remember or communicate verbally, if you pay attention there is an unmistakable sense of all that they know, and of who they are. Being.

Chances are good there will be a day that I can no longer experience the physical joy of a run. Perhaps I'll still be able to read and write about it. Perhaps I'll have younger or healthier friends through whom I'll continue to experience that joy. Maybe I'll lose that, too? Someday I'll probably seem like little more than a wrinkly old lady to someone who's not paying attention. But I'll still be that runner, who ran all over the world, saw life through that lens, and cared deeply about it. And I'll probably still have something to say on the subject. I hope someone will ask.

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For all of the important things Grammy Roselle did in her younger life, for all of the important things she came to be in her older life, for all of the things she shared and taught until the day she died, I will be forever grateful.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Shifting gears

A couple of weeks ago I was out riding with a friend who has been patiently teaching me the basics of cycling, helping me feel comfortable with the physics of being balanced up there on two skinny little tires, and figuring out how that big mess of gears work. As I was clunking through some gears during our ride, I asked her what would happen if the bike chain slipped. Her reply went something like this:
Your pedals will keep spinning, but you won't be going anywhere, so you'll have to stop or else you'll fall over. No big deal. Just walk yourself to a safe place, and take care of it. You'll get really dirty and greasy in the process of putting the chain back on, and you'll be annoyed by the delay in your ride, but then you'll just get back on and keep going.
It dawned on me that this is exactly why I've resisted bicycling for so long. Breakdowns are actually a part of the deal! Cyclists have to be ready to pull themselves over and patch a flat or put a chain back on at any moment. And not only does it require some technical expertise that I don't yet have, it also requires a lot more mental flexibility and perseverance than comes naturally to me. Sure, as a marathoner I can make it through a tough hill workout, or talk myself through a difficult race, but there are times that a run just isn't "clicking," or something hurts. And if I'm having a crappy run, I will usually just stop. I adjust my route and call it a day. At the purely recreational level at which I run, this is a perfectly acceptable approach. Not so in cycling, however. Pull over, deal with the problem, and get yourself a little dirty in the process.

It's been a weird few months, you guys, but I think I've got the chain back on. My hands are dirty, my back hurts, and I'm pissed off about having been sidelined for so long, but I'm back up and moving again. January and February were a fog of pneumonia and fatigue. March and April I was up to my eyeballs in the mess and recovery from a flood in our home that displaced us and had us under construction for seven weeks. 2014 has so far been a lot of spinning my pedals without going anywhere. And unfortunately, when the going got tough for me this time around, my self-care instincts failed. I just never clicked into the right gear. Instead of getting out of the office in time to get in an evening run, I stayed at my desk and let myself work too late most nights of the week. For two months straight, I think I accepted every single offer to go out for happy hour that came my way, because eating and drinking with abandon sounded like a lot less work than sweating or writing - my two usual go-to strategies for dealing with a problem. It didn't take long for it to catch up with me, for the chain to slip, and for me to be forced to pull over and deal with it. But I'm healthy again, my condo is put back together, and summer in San Diego - my favorite time, in my favorite place - is almost here. I'm strapping on my helmet, wiping off the dust, and heading back out. See you on the road, friends!

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Post-script: In the middle of writing this post, I learned of the unexpected death of my very dear grandmother Roselle. The loss of this marvelous woman is still too much for me to process in this moment, but I have the love and support of the beautiful family that she created to lean on, and I know we'll come out on the other side of our grief intact. Thankfully, the chain is firmly in place.