Part of my hospital chaplaincy duties is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.
No one seems prepared to get old, to become doddering and delicate and decrepit, to embrace the inexorable breakdown of our bodies.
The uninitiated are overwhelmed by aging. There’s a drawn-out feud to stay independent even as your body starts acting on its own, and even the healthiest of the elderly can be disgusted at themselves.
When I visit the elderly, some of them are blindsided by the loss of their youth. The middle-aged are, too. They really can’t stomach it. Some are all too sheepish: “You should’ve seen my figure” or “Back in the day I was something” or “I could fight you full strength right now.” I’m certain I’ll be saying the same things, resisting my withering body as it fails me, hissing at every reflection as I banish myself to mashed potatoes and Mylanta.
Some of this is because we’ve tied too much worth and value to youth and attractiveness. I guess I could blame social media, which permanently imprints our youthful selves on a public scale. But really, no one told us how to cope with death.
Even if I told you what I know, I’m not sure that would make it any better.
Your body becomes gross. Your orifices start popping open like loose cargo pants and you start streaming fluids from everywhere. You’ll stink constantly. About one out of six of you will need a colostomy bag. About one out of five you will need dentures. You’ll have permanent aches and pains. You’ll lose time and names and history. You’ll fall, a lot. Your belly won’t leave, but your sex-life might. Your slang will lose style. You’ll lose relevance. You might not enjoy retirement with all your medical bills looming. You’ll be helplessly stuck in a bed for days; you’ll have rows of medicine to keep you pumping; you’ll find a hard surprise in every mirror. And if you retire wealthy, you might be too sick or too depressed to enjoy it, or—well, cancer. And there are all the funerals.
Aging is undeniably sad. But I’m still learning that age can be a wonderful badge. We often look at the elderly like they’re burdens, and certainly they can be burdensome to a family who must care for them, but they’re also deep fountains of incredible truth and trials and stories of heartbreak and laughter. There is still purpose in their bones. There is still abundance and worthiness in our later years. For as many of the heartbroken elderly that I meet in the hospital, I speak with the unencumbered, the unbothered, the ones with perspective and a head-shaking sort of chuckle, an ability to be rather amused at the world and at themselves, who watch the news knowing that nothing is quite new, who still enjoy chocolate and thunderstorms and Motown.
Once in a while, I meet the prepared.
There are some who are ready to leave this temporary city called earth. They want to go on their own terms.
There are some terminally ill patients who no longer want to be subjected to the “cure.” The chemicals are not worth the reduced quality-of-life, and maybe hospice or going home really are the best ways to spend those last days.
I don’t know how to answer that for every person. I can only start by asking the right questions.
It takes an incredible amount of self-awareness and supernatural peace to embrace our final chapters. It takes a really brash honesty and humility to decide how we say goodbye.
I met this elderly lady under palliative care, Lucy, who was over a hundred-years-old, hardly able to move and who could only smile and giggle. When I walked in, she immediately said, “Tell my family that I’m ready. I’ve lived the life I wanted and it was a dream.” She giggled right then, a truly joyful laugh. “I’m happy. I love my family, but they have to let me go. No CPR, no last-ditch effort on machines, no Code Blues. They want to keep me here but I can’t do it like this. I’m ready to say goodbye.”
She talked about the pressure she felt from her family, who saw her as the sole source of maternal legacy, and she kept saying, “I’m tired, I’m tired, oh Jesus, I’m tired.” We talked about dignity, and why she, only she, could decide on what was dignified for her.
“I want to see my husband, is all,” she said. “I want my body again, up there.” She managed to point one gnarled finger at the ceiling. “I know where I’m going.”
She giggled once more. She was content.
She was looking forward to the next great adventure, by saying goodbye to this one.