We’re at the end times now, with my father in law. He had an infection that has sapped his strength so much so that he can’t roll over in bed or sit up. He’s at home now, and the waiting game has begun. This is the third time, and hopefully the last, that I’ve been in this space.
What I have learned from it is twofold. First of all, and most importantly, it isn’t DNA that makes a family, but the web of love, connection and memories that two people share. For example, I was devastated with my mother in law’s death, as I will likely be with his, because I consider them my real parents. And it’s not just parents. Your family consists of those you choose, or that fate chooses for you, with whom you share deep ties and experiences on this ridiculous blue ball. Love is the crux of that, of course, as it is with all things human.
The second thing I’ve learned is that this body, this ambulatory house for organs, bones and blood, is not designed for advanced old age. Yes, there are senior citizens who leap out of airplanes, go horseback riding, and raise a proverbial middle finger to the idea of slowing down, even as they inevitably do. These are, however, the exceptions, not the rule. What is the rule? A slow decline; a host irritating ailments, a lack of sensory perception, minor or major lapses in clear linear and abstract thinking, increasing difficulty with even the most basic tasks, and an infantilizing that sends us back to diapers and soft foods we might manage to be able to swallow without choking. This is the likely reality…and this if we’re lucky enough not to be obliterated by dementia.
There is no doubt this is grim in theory, and I can imagine it will be even more gruesome in practice. And yet there are a few saving graces. One of these is the fathomless capacity human beings have for self delusion. We stave off the horrible aging realities coming at us like a freight train by doing what we do best- creating a mix of ignoring that it’s happening, combined with adaptation to each new reality. Adaptation, after all, is why we thrived as a species, even during the Ice Ages. If you can’t do one thing, keep trying one after another until you and the situation and environment you find yourself in become at the very least tolerable, and hopefully enjoyable. Although fun may reduce itself to a trip to the supermarket to look at fruit, there are still things we can invent to look forward to, a hallmark of the eternal optimism of our kind. And in this country there are thriving industries catering to the weaknesses of the old, inventions that spawned to lessen the negative impacts of every aspect of life needs that one can think of, to help us cope.
Of course, the end will come, and you may be lucky enough to go out while you are still living and not just existing. After seeing the dying process of the aged close up and personal now, I understand that this is the best one can hope for. All I want for my own end is not to burden my son with its arrival- what I’m sure every parent wants for their child. The grief and pain, however, are inevitable parts of loving someone when they exit the planet, nothing can ameliorate that, and the dying process itself is definitely not for the fainthearted. Basically, all we can hope for is to meet it with courage and grace. But I know that come what may all of us will inevitably do what humans do best- adapt, cope, and let love lead the way.