As My Grandmother Lays Dying

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My 93 year old grandmother was placed on hospice care this week. Her daughters and grandchildren are rallying around her, trying to provide her, and ourselves, with comfort during her final days. She has been blessed with a long, healthy life, with a patient, steady husband of over 60 years, who predeceased her, with four daughters who love her, and with a bevy of grandchildren and great-grandchildren who think she’s a hoot.

Watching her live out her last days, I am reminded of what a blessing it is to grow old. I think of the people I have known who passed too soon. Maybe it was due to hard living or a genetic condition. Maybe it was through an accident or unexpected illness. Maybe it was through violence or suicide.

We owe it to them not to spend too much time lamenting our gray hairs, wrinkles, sags, aches, pains, and memory lapses. We owe it to them to be grateful to be alive, and to make the best we can of our lives, whatever that might look like for each of us. We owe it to them to take good care of our health and well-being. We owe it to them to nurture and value our relationships with the people who truly matter most in our lives, and to whom we matter most.

As my last living grandparent lays dying, I feel grateful to have known not just her, but all of my grandparents, and three of my great-grandparents – one of the benefits of having been born to 18 year old parents. As the end of an era draws near, I carry with me into the future the memories, stories, and words of wisdom they have shared.  As my grandmother lays dying, I am reminded of how much I want to live a long, healthy, happy life, and to be surrounded by people I love, who love me back, when I lay dying.

It is up to us to lay the foundation that leads to this circle of love. Some of the questions I ask myself when faced with a decision about what is most important are:  Will this matter when I’m on my death bed? Will this person be by my side when I’m on my deathbed, if he or she is still alive? Will I regret this when I’m on my deathbed? The answers always guide me to what matters most.

May we always remember who and what matters most. May we value our selves and each other well into old age. May we be kind and compassionate to our elders. And may we always be young at heart.

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Here is a (most inappropriate) toast my gregarious grandmother used to say (sometimes to gales of laughter, sometimes to abject horror, depending on the company) when she had one too many glasses of wine: “Here’s to the old lady who lives on the hill; if she won’t give it to you, I will.” I love you, Gram.

Seriously?

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One of my Facebook friends posted this quote the other day. I’m sure she meant it as inspiration, but it struck me as a little holier than thou and judgmental. Seriously, we and we alone have sole control over EVERYTHING in our lives? Nothing is that simple.

While I agree that our choices greatly impact our lives, I question how much control we have over the place from which we make those choices.  For instance, can we really compare the choices of a person who grew up in a safe, stable, loving household to one who was the victim of chronic abuse?  I don’t think so.

So many things happen in life that are out of our control, that impact our psyches in ways we don’t understand, which in turn influence our choices, for better or worse. Our life experiences, from the moment we are born, our earliest role models, trauma, unconditional love, exposure to violence, exposure to art and culture, travel, isolation, quality and level of education, and so many other things impact our choices. Very often they do so unconsciously.

I’m hardly an expert in psychology, but I’ve lived long enough, and made enough bad choices – along with many good ones – to know that not EVERYTHING in my life is a reflection of them. Sometimes, stuff happens. Sometimes, other people make choices that impact our lives. Sometimes, we are faced with a choice we didn’t ask for and wish we didn’t have to make (I’m thinking of the recent American presidential election here). Sometimes, in good faith, we choose wrongly and don’t realize it until it’s too late.

As adults, we owe it to ourselves, when our lives aren’t going well, to engage in self-reflection (and maybe a little therapy) to get to the root of why, and our role in it. But when all else fails, and you’re left reeling from a bad choice, take heart from one of my new favorite quotes:

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Risk and Vulnerability

vulnerability-quoteWhat is the riskiest thing you’ve ever done? Jump out of an airplane? Travel abroad alone? Leave a job or relationship that wasn’t working? Start a business? Pursue a dream? Something else?

For me, it was to put my uncensored writing out there for others to see – and to criticize. I thought I would be safe when I signed up for a creative nonfiction writing course, with a small group of adults who had a passion for the craft. Our instructor set clear ground rules, one of which was to critique the writing, not the writer. This rule gave me the courage to share my work without censuring myself, for the first time ever.

So imagine my shock when, during a group critique of one of my essays, a classmate said, “I can’t imagine writing that about my [insert very close relation].” A pair of middle-aged women (I was in my early 30s at the time) nodded their heads in agreement as they whispered to each other and sent me disapproving glances. I looked to my instructor to correct them, remind them of the ground rules, but she didn’t. I felt betrayed by my classmates and by her. Worse, I felt like a naughty little girl who had done something very wrong.

After that class, I went back to writing in the closet for years and stuck mostly with fiction. Fiction felt safe because the characters weren’t real people and the stories came from my imagination. For a while, I also wrote feel-good news stories for a local newspaper. Then I started blogging, where I walk a fine line between speaking my uncensored truth and carefully choosing my language so as not to offend others or incite their  wrath. All low-risk writing.

Recently, I was reminded of how vulnerable we are when we put ourselves out there in any way, whether it’s speaking our truth, sharing our art, making decisions others don’t understand or approve of, or bucking society norms and/or traditions to follow our dreams or live more authentically. We open ourselves up to all kinds of judgement and criticism from others, some constructive and well-meaning, some downright mean. Sometimes it is the silence of indifference that hurts the most.

Risk-taking requires courage in the face of fear; it also  requires the willingness to be vulnerable. There is always a chance that we might be harmed, whether emotionally, financially, physically or in some other way.  But if we want to step out of our comfort zones and grow, if we want to pursue goals and dreams, if we want success that goes beyond the ordinary kind, or if we simply want to share our art in the most authentic way possible, we must take risks. That almost always leaves us vulnerable.

Have you ever felt truly vulnerable? I went through a brief period where someone had hurt me deeply, and as a result I felt incredibly vulnerable. It was as if every armor and shield of self-protection I had ever worn was ripped away, leaving me raw and exposed. Instead of fighting the feeling, I gave into it and an odd thing happened; I started to like it.  The softness of it felt light, and it carried a beauty and authenticity I hadn’t experienced before.  I was enveloped in a sense of peace and contentedness. Then after a couple of days, the outer shell started to harden again and the feeling went away, though I never forgot it.

Next time you’re wrestling with whether or not to take a risk, I encourage you to move beyond courage and embrace vulnerability.

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