Living Until the Curtain Falls

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Newly retired and eager to prove that my life was still going to be useful and exciting, several years ago I set up my blog and named it “The Golden Years Revisited.” From the name it was obvious to me that I believed most of the myths about retirement and growing older.  In a youth-obsessed society with an evangelical belief in the powers of medicine and technology to delay or erase the natural progression of life, the images surrounding aging and being  “old” are pretty negative.  The most damaging message is that the right attitude (i.e., thinking young and following the example of those few exceptional seniors who never seem to get old) will delay aging, but once the battle is lost, you are irrelevant and useless, often even to people who love you, but definitely to society as a whole.

As an avid reader, I frequent our town library on a regular basis, and suffer anxiety whenever my unread book stack is down to one.  I always browse through the new acquisition section that is divided between fiction and non-fiction.  For most of my life, my choices were firmly in the fiction (escape) section.  Good escape fiction, of course, and hopefully thoughtful and pertinent to my own life, but fiction nonetheless.  I worked full time, was deeply immersed in the intense world of raising children and then helping them at a distance through the early years of adulthood.  I survived breast cancer and the deaths of both my parents.  I had all the non-fiction that I could handle.

Then I finally arrived at that golden shore of retirement.  I could read as much good fiction as I got my hands on and think of myself first in most situations.  I could be that woman who wears purple with a red hat and doesn’t care what people think.  Not that I was unaware of the realities of aging, but I come from a long line of strong and healthy women and I was sure it would be smooth sailing.  Eventually, of course, I would arrive in that amorphous stage of life when I would actually be OLD.  And that would be it, so to speak, even if I was still physically alive.

Something mysterious happened to my reading preferences.  I gravitated toward the non-fiction section.  I became obsessed with biographical and autobiographical stories.  I read books on politics that I would previously have dropped like a hot potato. I wanted more than ever to understand the world I live in and specifically the roots and consequences of the choices we make as individuals and a society.  Naturally the subject of aging was of paramount interest.  I know that I will never be president or live a fascinating life that someone will want to read about long after I am gone.  But I would get (and have finally gotten, I guess) to that place called Old.

I previously read “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande and am currently reading “Elderhood” by Louise Aronson.  They are both physicians who question the wisdom and approach of the medical establishment when working with older people and confronting death (at any age).  “Elderhood,” in particular has given me a veritable banquet of things to consider and ways to formulate my choices related to the medical establishment in the years to come.

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In September this year I will reach 75 years of age.  I do not want to buy into the myth that as long as I eat right, exercise, and do mental puzzles (though they are important), dye my hair or start wearing makeup to cover the wrinkles (not so important), I won’t actually die someday.  I want to celebrate this time in my life, not by trying to be one of those exceptional older people who run marathons (let’s face it, I never liked to run, not even when I was 20) but by finally learning to love myself and the place where each day takes me – closer to the end, yes, but anticipating one heck of a curtain call!

 

©Martha Hurwitz, 1/6/20

Temporal

Constant Friends

“I think you need a dog.”  My husband had just informed me somewhat sheepishly that he was considering getting me a puppy as a Mother’s Day present and there were a few possible candidates he was checking out on-line and wouldn’t I like to go see them, you know, just to look.  No pressure, no commitment, as if any dog lover could visit a pack of puppies and come away without one!  I could think of many things that I needed, but a puppy was not on the list.  Maybe an older dog.  A senior for seniors special.  A dog who like me had been around the block a few times.  But a puppy?

Dogs have been a part of my life since childhood, and while there were periods of time when I was dog-less, a fair number of my happiest years not to mention happiest relationships have been with members of the canine world.

Zanzibar Puppy

My husband and I had gotten a dog early in our relationship–a Golden Retriever named Zanzibar whose greatest joy in life was retrieving food handouts from the neighbors, and whose goofy behavior and happy-go-lucky personality graced our family life for 15 years.             Steve and Zanzibar

 

Then one morning he fell over on his side and by evening he had crossed over to wherever it is that dogs go to claim their well-deserved reward.

 

Lucy Puppy

Then there was Lucy.  Our children were ten and eight and it had been a year since Zanzibar died.  On impulse one day I took them to the local animal rescue and there in a cage was a white Shepherd/Lab puppy who looked at me with a calm dignity as if to signal that she had been waiting for just such a family to come take her home.  Lucy turned out to be one of the best dogs I have ever known, a combination of steadfast loyalty, pack instincts inherited from her wild ancestors, and playfulness that complimented that of two young children.  She lived 16 years and then her hind quarters began to weaken.  She was often unable to go to the bathroom without falling and she was clearly stressed at the frequent accidents she had in the house.  I was now faced with the decision that an animal lover dreads.  When is enough enough?  I was not unwilling to continue cleaning her after accidents or cleaning up the floor and carpets, but it was her obvious distress and discomfort that finally made me ask whether I was delaying the inevitable for her or for myself.

Lucy

It was two years before I could drive past the vet’s office without choking on tears and at bedtime I would gently touch the small cedar box containing her ashes as a talisman against whatever evil comes in the night.  Six years passed, and yet there were still times when I whispered my longing for her to return. Probably I would never live with another dog because in all fairness I did not want to burden a new dog with the expectation that she couldn’t possibly live up to my memories of Lucy.  My husband said he would never have another dog because the emotional investment was too intense and the inevitable end too painful.

But here he was with his Internet research, facts, figures, names and addresses.  I hemmed and hawed, perplexed at this development.  Despite my belief that I would never replace Lucy, there was always that small hope that someday I would find her spirit living in another dog.  But I was now happily retired and one of the biggest perks of retirement for me is that in the morning I can sit in bed as long as I want, sipping coffee, reading a book or just looking out the window at the hummingbirds, the budding apple trees, or the winter evergreens covered in snow.  An older dog would obviously require some pre-coffee attention in the morning.  But a puppy would mean a mad dash to the door at 5 AM, and at 72 years old, mad dashes hampered by arthritis, a slipped disk and a bad knee were something I thought it was prudent to avoid.

That afternoon when I returned from the grocery store, I was informed that we had an appointment to see one of the puppies the next day.  In his well-practiced and skilled way my husband downplayed the whole scenario by saying that he didn’t know if it was a legitimate offer, the ad was vague and confusing, he wasn’t really sure how much they wanted for the dog, so it probably wouldn’t work out anyway.  The owner lived almost two hours away in a large city with some really good restaurants.  My husband sweetened the pot with “What’s the worst that can happen?  At least we can get a really great Italian meal!”

It’s probably no surprise to anyone how all this played out.  We did have an excellent Italian meal, and then brought home 20 pounds of Black Lab puppy exuberance named Molly.  It’s been a mere three days and I am bleary-eyed and exhausted, an echo of those early motherhood days now long behind me.  I have survived several mad dashes in the middle of the night, cleaned up the usual puppy messes, rescued slippers in danger of extinction and suffered shock over the amount of money that we are already spending on one small creature.

Most people say that the best way to assess a situation is with your eyes wide open, and honestly I did do that three days ago.  But then, as every dog knows, sometimes it is better to keep your eyes tightly closed and your heart wide open.   Puppies will make you do that.

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©Martha Hurwitz, 5/19/19

 

 

 

A Pacifist’s Daughter and Veterans Day

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Sitting rather uncomfortably on a cold metal chair, on a stage in front of about 30 veterans, family members, the local police chief and a few others from the community, it must have been patently obvious to everyone that I was a fraud.  Clearly I was stuck in a grown-up version of that Sesame Street song “One of these things is not like the other…..”

Almost all of the participants on the stage other than me were veterans, dressed in crisp uniforms with razor-sharp creases that would have been a source of envy for my grandmother who ironed her bed sheets with a flatiron heated on the wood stove.

I tried to convince myself that after all I was there legitimately, president of the board of the local synagogue and invited to participate as a substitute for our usual representative who was away on an overseas trip this year.  I clutched the paper on which a lovely prayer for Veterans Day, written by a Jewish poet, was typed neatly and which I would soon be called upon to read as the opening prayer.

In the days leading up to this event, I had been overwhelmed with thoughts of my father, who had been a conscientious objector during World War II.  I also felt the moral weight of my upbringing in the Society of Friends (Quakers), where opposition to war was a given.  And then there were the “60’s,” the decade during which I grew from adolescent to adult, surrounded by the turmoil of the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War.   Sitting on that stage I wondered what my father would have to say about this day and my participation in it.

VW BusAlthough I never participated directly in any of the shameful treatment of soldiers returning from that war, neither did I speak out against it, or even recognize it as violence against those who had already experienced violence beyond anything I could imagine.  Violence that I might have survived physically, but not emotionally intact.  In the naive certainty of youth, I knew that being against war was obvious and anyone who willingly went to war deserved what they got.  Because I was a mild mannered and well brought-up child, I would never call anyone a “baby killer,” but surely some deserved that name and maybe if they were shouted at and vilified, they might decide to become peacemakers instead of soldiers.

The guest speaker at this Veterans Day event works with disabled veterans, helping them receive the benefits to which they are entitled.  In one of those ironic twists that often occur in life, he had served in the Vietnam War.  I expected a speech glorifying the experience of  serving in the military and extolling the bravery and commitment of those who serve.  Had I been sitting in the audience instead of in full sight of everyone, I might have been prepared to engage in a bit of eye-rolling, or at minimum some silent scoffing.

Instead I listened to a man talk of coming home from that war “broken,” admitting that he had considered killing himself several times.  Choking on tears, he described the price his wife and children paid in trying to support and comfort him in those years before he understood that he was suffering from PTSD and sought professional help.  He said he did not need to describe the treatment that soldiers returning from that war received from protesters since everyone there was already familiar with it.

The speaker and I are of a similar age, and if I were able to have a conversation with him I would want to share what I have learned since those heady days when my moral certainty had not yet been tempered by an understanding of life from the perspectives of those who lived with different economic and social realities.  I would admit I now understand that protesting war as a policy and holding elected officials responsible for those policies is not the same as demonizing the foot soldiers who pay the price.  I would tell him that I understand now that there are numerous reasons why someone would enlist in military service, other than my misconception that they must like to play with guns and kill people who don’t look like them.

Yes, I am still anti-war and I still believe that war does not usually solve the problems for which it is initiated.  I suspect, however, that it is the very people who have actually gone to war who know that truth better than any of us.  The greatest honor that we could bestow upon our veterans would be to create a world in which their children and grandchildren would never have to go to war.

Sadly the human race has not yet gotten to that point.  We cling to our fears and prejudices, we demonize those who are different, and we ask others to pay the heavy price required to maintain our perceived superior position.

So what would my father think about me sitting on that stage?

I think he would be proud.

 

©Martha Hurwitz, 11/11/18

 

 

I’ve been reading about the U.S. immigrant situation and the separation of children from their parents for the last two weeks. My response, from the safety of my own study, has been to sign petitions, send money to the ACLU, write testy letters to my own representatives which, in a purplish-blue state, involves preaching to […]

via The Borders of Decency — The Green Study

The Straw

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According to folk wisdom, it only takes one straw to break a camel’s back.  While I am not the most prolific of bloggers by any means, over the past year I have managed a few posts commenting on the state of this nation and the insanity that continues to build in the hollowed (formerly hallowed) halls of government in Washington.

But then the straw fell that almost broke my voice.  My country, the land of the free and home of the brave, where Liberty lifts her lamp to welcome the tired, the poor, the homeless and tempest-tossed, apparently now considers that God is okay with tearing children from their mother’s or father’s arms and tossing them into jail.

It is still a great struggle for me to write anything in response to this outrageous policy, so I am going to re-blog in a separate post The Borders of Decency that appeared today on The Green Study.  Michelle is an excellent writer, and she provides pertinent suggestions on ways to keep up the good fight.

Like the young people of Chicago and Parkland, and countless others who are determined to turn their personal tragedies into a dynamic force for decency and change, we must continue to speak truth to power.

 

 

Picture from article by Jessica McBride on Heavy.com, 6/18/18

© Martha Hurwitz, 6/18/18

 

 

Road Map

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Real Wrinkles

First, of course, there are the real ones.  Wrinkles on my face, wrinkles on my elbows, wrinkly skin on the backs of my hands, and wrinkles in numerous other bodily areas that I am too polite and lady-like to discuss in detail.  (You may discover this to be a blatant lie if you are kind enough to read further, so fair warning….)

dog-1721499_640.jpgPerhaps about 20 years ago, I naively thought that getting wrinkles on my face would mean crows feet around my eyes and maybe a few tiny lines here and there that would lend a certain dignity to my looks and convince people to treat me as a revered elder with  lots of sage advice to share.

I have always felt a great deal of pride (okay, a bit of snarky smugness) in not being overly concerned about looks, fashion, styles, driving an impressive automobile, or belonging to a prestigious country club.  So I was a bit surprised to find that looking into the mirror now requires me to engage in a pep talk to myself about how “wrinkles mean you laughed” and all that other touchy-feely, hippie philosophy that I used to subscribe to without reservation (or real-life experience).

But many wrinkles that aren’t physical arise during these golden years.

The Naming Wrinkle

What do I call myself?  What adjectives placed before “woman” characterize me now?  Old?  Sorry, don’t like that one.  Older? Not much of an improvement, and kind of vague.  Older than whom or what?  Senior?  That’s a little better, but sounds as if I’m about to graduate, and quite frankly, I’m not in a hurry to “graduate” from this time in my life because my next stop is probably the end of the line.  Elder? I do like the image gathered from cultures that hold older people in a more positive light, but it doesn’t really seem to fit here.  So this is still an unanswered question for me.  Maybe I’ll try Impatient older woman, left with only one nerve, upon which you are standing, so step lightly.  That would work most days!

The Time Wrinkle

phone-booth-295795_640Some days I do feel much like I stepped into a phone booth, made a short call, and then stepped out into a world where phone booths are seriously out of date.  Perhaps this phenomenon would be better described as a time warp.  Wikipedia defines time warp as “… an imaginary spatial distortion that allows time travel in fiction, or a hypothetical form of time dilation or contraction.”

The time distortions experienced during these years do seem to have some relationship to dilation, as any woman who has undergone a D&C can tell you.  (I warned you we might get back to bodily images!)  It may be temporary or, as one (male) doctor said to me once prior to doing the procedure:  “You may feel a little pinch!”  All I can say to that is “Pinch, my ass!”  These time warps and distortions are confusing, troubling, scary and they often hurt.  “Wasn’t it only yesterday ……?”  “Will  I live long enough to ……?”

The Communication Wrinkle

I am referring to the interesting phenomenon that happens with internal communication among the parts of the human body. One of the first posts I wrote about the physical changes of the older years explained how the different parts of my body no longer seemed to communicate effectively and now were like a dysfunctional family full of self-centered kids all clamoring for attention from a stressed out parent. It was a cute little fluff piece, written as I was getting my feet wet as a new writer.  Two years later, I can only say it is no longer cute and funny.

Take putting on socks, for example.  For those lucky enough to live in a nice warm climate, this may not seem like a big deal, but during a typical New England winter, let me assure you that several pairs of socks are often necessary (in the house).  Putting on socks is a simple task, is it not?  A toddler could do it.  True enough, but the toddler does not have to factor in a hip that refuses to assist the leg in lifting up the foot high enough so the hands can reach the toes.  Ignore this situation at your peril.  Straining to complete the task may eventually get socks onto your foot, but now your hip has alerted the muscles in your thigh that they are under attack and they better spasm up and man the barricades!  Staving off impending muscle cramps usually requires instantaneous change of position and to that I say, “Yeah, right, how does that work out for you?”

The Attitude Wrinkle

Although I am someone who generally sees the world from a positive perspective and tries hard to lighten the mood and laugh at difficulties and troubles, I find myself tempted frequently to slide into self-pity, irritation and sadness.  This time of life requires a great deal of fortitude and spiritual strength, even in the best of times.

In June of 2016, Huffington Post photographer Damon Dahlen took portraits of 14 women aged between 50 and 90 and in the accompanying article Shelley Emling said these women “roll their eyes at ageist (and sexist) standards of beauty. Rather than fight the inevitable effects of aging, they see the lines on their faces as a road map of their lives. They are the etchings of many years fully lived — and each and every one of them has been earned.”  To that I say “Amen!”

 

©Martha Hurwitz
3/16/2018

 

Alien?

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“My brother is an alien,” she stated confidently in her sweet, three-year-old voice.  She was too young to know that once she had also been an alien.  The immigration officer smiled in a professionally controlled way.  Likely she had heard that joke a few times in her long career behind that desk.

There is no concern in our voices, no hesitation in presenting the official, stamped, sworn-to papers that will make our baby son an American citizen.  After all, we are white, privileged, financially stable, citizens by birth.  There is no question of our right to the time and attention of this bureaucrat, whose salary and benefits, after all, are paid by our tax money.  Our lives are comfortable, our extended clan vibrant with welcoming love for these two young children.  Children who were born to other parents somewhere else in the world, brown-skinned, with hair and eyes as black as night.

True, we suffered years of longing and waiting, tears and anger, attending baby showers with fake smiles on our faces, dredging up congratulations out of the shreds of our shattered hopes.  But now, we are parents, finally.  Not the way we had originally planned, not “blood of my blood,” no shared DNA, no possibility of “she looks just like you!” But parents, nonetheless.

Doubtless feelings of fear and inadequacy plague all new parents, its measure according to personality and ability, tradition and experience.  But add in this:  guilt.  Guilt because this is a world in which someone like me can travel thousands of miles to a foreign land, hand over thousands of dollars to an adoption agency and an attorney, spend weeks or months living in an apartment hotel and finally, at last, travel thousands of miles back home with the most adorable, wanted, loved, prayed for children in the entire universe.

And what of the mothers left behind?  We did not meet our daughter’s mother three years before, because at that time it was not always feasible.  But this time we did, in our lawyer’s office, depending on him to adequately translate the depth of our gratitude.  Our words and those of this lovely young mother were choked with tears.  We assured her that we would speak of her always in kindness; that we would be sure her son would know that she wanted him, desperately, but gave him to us “with her whole heart” because she knew the life she would live with him would be stark and painful; that he would be an alien in his own land and she wanted better for him.

Almost thirty years have passed since those meetings with our son’s mother and with the immigration officer.  But sadly, immigration and the cruel and untrue characterizations of immigrants from those who purport to represent the American people assault me on a daily basis.  I am forced to realize that my children could so easily have been “Dreamers.” That under a different set of circumstances, their mothers might well have brought them to this country or any other country illegally, because that is what parents do when the only other option is letting your child die of malnutrition, be kidnapped into a rebel army, or forced into prostitution.  And legal or not, I would say to them, Bravo, Welcome, Well Done.

 

©Martha Hurwitz, 2/1/18
Inspired by Daily Word Prompt: profuse