Aging gracefully: lessons in resilience

Aging gracefully: lessons in resilience

I hear a lot about aging gracefully, usually in the context of judging someone for “getting work done” or dressing too young. Our measure for grace is a tenuous balance between looking halfway decent and not looking too much younger than we are.

For instance, Meryl Streep is aging gracefully. Yeah, well, Meryl Streep has done just about everything in her life gracefully. I know Meryl Streep (from faithfully reading People magazine) and I’m no Meryl Streep.

Aging hasn’t been a particularly graceful experience for me, yet I feel the recipient of grace for being allowed to age. I’m not sure why I get to “survive” cancer. It certainly isn’t because I’ve lived well. I’ve tempted fate more times and in more ways than a smart person should.

We survivors are sitting on a teeter totter, with a sense of victory on one end and a sense of guilt on the other. When we’re in a good place, gratitude balances the two and we give in to neither of the extremes.

Last Friday I found out that MK, a member of my support group, had died. She was our cornerstone, our matriarch. She lived in that balance, on the center pole of the teeter totter, accepting the creep of age and embracing its joys. Until she died, she survived with gratitude and filled every space of her life with what she cared about.

MK was resilient. She confronted the inevitable and found a way to live with it. And she did it with style.

For most of my life I thought that I would be thrilled to retire, to not have to get up and go to work. After cancer, though, work is one of those things I have doubled down on. It’s important to me, and fighting through pain and exhaustion during treatment to get there, to have as few absences on my timesheet as absolutely possible was one way to stay sane.

MK missed her work. The last time I saw her she made a wistful comment about work, and she volunteered at her workplace when she was able to. The wistfulness, however, was always a candle flame and never a roaring fire. She was not consumed by missing work.

She said, several times, “The past 18 months have been the best of my life.” Not many people could get away with saying that, at least not without alienating the suffering people around her. She didn’t say it in a Mary Sunshine sort of way, just in a grateful way.

She filled her time with her grandchildren and children, with travel and Words With Friends, with good wine and chocolate, with taking golf lessons with her husband. It made me laugh when she said, after a few lessons, “I remember, now, why I stopped learning to golf.”

She once said that she feared death only because she didn’t want to abandon her children, all of them grown up with children of their own. The most emotional I ever saw her was when a friend of her daughter’s died of breast cancer, leaving very young children.

MK offered me lessons in resilience and for aging gracefully.

Confront the inevitable. She knew she was dying. She knew she had to give up work. She told herself no lies.

Do what you can do. She learned about treatments and pursued them. When she could volunteer her time at work, she did. She drove to Florida to spend time alone because she could and because she wanted to. She babysat her grandchildren in the Northeast.

Accept what life brings. It was never that MK didn’t feel the sadness of cancer. I think she did, though she didn’t talk much about it. It’s just that she allowed herself to live in a world of suffering and loss without fighting with the universe about the fairness of it all. Life isn’t fair, her life seemed to say, but there’s nothing I can do about that.

Give back. In big and small ways, MK gave of herself. The last time she was at our support group, I arrived late, which I never do. She looked at me with concern and I told her that I’d lost my keys. “Oh, I hate that,” she said. And she meant it. She had a way of understanding the trivial in our lives as well as the tragic.

Laugh when you can. She teased us. To one of our members she said, “After getting through these treatments and dealing with cancer, how can you ride a motorcycle?” She teased me about my nutrition obsessions. Someone mentioned eating cheetos, and I said, “Human beings weren’t meant to eat anything that color.” The next time I saw her, she said, “You know oranges are the same color as cheetos.

Be grateful and find joy. She loved wine, and took real pleasure drinking it. She loved to shop for her grandchildren. She often said how grateful she was that she could still do all of these things.
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