Janet Sheridan: A lesson from loved ones
February 5, 2010
I recently attended my aunt Mary's funeral.
Her younger brother of 85, uncle Norley, sat by me — his bulk diminished, his laugh weakened; his hearing reduced. As we mourned, questions about growing old swirled through my mind — about pain and poor health, loneliness and isolation, diminishment and death.
I never talked with my parents about their aging. I was too young and self-centered. I didn't know one day I would have difficulty standing up from a sofa, hearing the voices of my grandchildren and threading a sewing machine.
I wish mom were alive so she could tell me how she handled nights when she couldn't sleep and days when her failing senses separated her from her hobbies.
I wish dad could tell me how he dealt with the slow betrayal of the work-hard body that had supported his family. As his singing voice faded, did he mourn the soaring tenor that used to burst from him in moments of happiness?
In the grocery store, on airplanes, at community concerts, I look at those who share my surrendering skin and ropy hands. I wonder how they cope with reluctant joints and dry eyes.
I know the one-liners — aging isn't for sissies; you're old when you think happy hour is a nap; after 50, things wear out, fall out, or spread out. I laugh, but my questions linger.
Then, listening to tender words from the pulpit about my aunt, I remembered my last conversation with her sister, my mother.
I called mom from 900 miles away the Sunday before she died. She was 77, living with a pacemaker, and happy.
She mentioned her speech in church that morning; she thought she presented meaningful ideas to the congregation without droning on forever, as some did.
She expressed satisfaction with a recent project, a small chest painted with graceful red poppies. Tomorrow, she would take it to the artisan's co-op where she sold her crafts and worked every Monday.
When we said goodbye, I failed to tell her I loved her. Three days later, she died.
I next recalled a conversation with my dad, who at age 88 still cut, hauled and split wood for "the old folks in town."
He talked about death: "I'm not afraid of being dead, because I'll be with your dear mother. But I do fear the act of dying. I've never done it; I don't know what to expect."
I'm glad my brother and his wife were with dad when he did what he had never before done.
My mind moved on to Adelaide, my mother-in-law, who invited us to her 90th birthday party. She planned to fete friends and family at a country club. She didn't golf — didn't think much of those who did — but liked the restaurant.
I asked how many guests she invited.
"I wanted to invite 90 people, one for every year I've lived, but I had 98 people on my list. I decided to go ahead and invite them all. They're pretty old; we might lose some before the party."
Ninety-two people, mostly friends because her family is small, celebrated this intelligent, soft-spoken, Southern belle in her new lavender dress and sensible shoes.
As my aunt's funeral ended, I realized I could find my way through old age by following the examples of my loved ones: mom's involvement with hobbies, church, community; dad's clear-eyed look at death; Adelaide's widespread social structure; their humor.
I also vowed to learn from the life of the woman we were burying, the grieving man next to me, all those good folks who had a hand in raising me.
I stood with uncle Norley as aunt Mary's casket was escorted from the chapel. He put his arm around me.
We leaned into each other.