Middle age tends to be a time of focusing not only on oneself and, if married, one’s mate, but also attending to maturing children and aging parents. Those generations—one on ahead, the other trailing—not only are sources of concern and joy, but also serve as reflections of the self. More than others in their age cohort, they prompt us to think of who we were and who we will be.
In a recent post in the Opinionator site at the New York Times, cartoonist and essayist Tim Kreider, age 45, writes of his mother’s plan to enter a retirement community. He is troubled not only by the immediate effects this move will have, but by what it intimates for his future. The emotion that her decision provokes in him is sadness.
Kreider is sad, first of all, because her move from the family homestead means for him the end of one of the great constancies in his life. His parents purchased their house 37 years ago, making it the place he has viewed as home for nearly all of his remembered life. He describes its meaning as follows:
“However infrequently I go there, it is the place on earth that feels like home to me, the place I’ll always have to go back to in case adulthood falls through. I hadn’t realized, until I was forcibly divested of it, that I’d been harboring the idea that someday, when this whole crazy adventure was over, I would at some point be nine again, sitting around the dinner table with Mom and Dad and my sister.”
My parents have lived in the same house since 1956. I can remember our family living elsewhere, but only dimly. I spend most of my time in their house now; I’m writing this in their family room. My presence enables them to remain for a little longer, but I know that their time of possessing this place—this house on the hill that I have been coming home to ever since elementary school–is nearing an end. I fully understand Kreider’s sense that losing the place one has always thought of as home produces feelings of rootlessness and dispossession.Kreider also takes his mother’s move as a foreshadowing of her—and his—eventual death. He laments the segregation of the elderly from the rest of us, largely because providing separate living facilities for them creates for us an illusionary world in which senescence doesn’t exist.
“Segregating the old and the sick enables a fantasy, as baseless as the fantasy of capitalism’s endless expansion, of youth and health as eternal, in which old age can seem to be an inexplicably bad lifestyle choice, like eating junk food or buying a minivan, that you can avoid if you’re well-educated or hip enough. So that when through absolutely no fault of your own your eyesight begins to blur and you can no longer eat whatever you want without consequence and the hangovers start lasting for days, you feel somehow ripped off, lied to.”
Kreider shudders not only at the indignities of aging and its accompanying maladies, but at the indignity of life ending. For him, the loss of control that occurs as health departs and death approaches is particularly frightening:
“Another illusion we can’t seem to relinquish, partly because large and moneyed industries thrive on sustaining it, is that with enough money and information we’ll be able to control how we age and die. But one of the main aspects of aging is the loss of control. Even people with the money to arrange to age in comfort can die in agony and indignity, gabbling like infants, forgetting their own children, sans everything. Death is a lot like birth (which people also gird themselves for with books and courses and experts) — everyone’s is different, some are relatively quick and painless and some are prolonged and traumatic, but they’re all pretty messy and unpleasant and there’s not a lot you can do to prepare yourself.”
But is there no way we can prepare ourselves? Isn’t our entire life in one sense preparation for decrepitude and death? As I described in my previous post, psychoanalytic theorist Erik Erikson saw our psychic life as a series of psychosocial stages or tasks; successful resolution of each stage helps prepare us to deal adaptively with the next stage. The final stage of life faces us with the dilemma of “ego integrity vs. despair.” Each of us reviews the course of our life; if it has been a meaningful one in which we have made lasting contributions to the welfare of others, we have prepared ourselves to have a sense of integrity even though we are descending progressively into the vortex of death.
A life of faith also serves as preparation for our last days. The loss of control is nothing new for those who trust that God’s providential care, not their effort, determines the most important life outcomes. Faith communities provide reminders of the inevitability of death in the form of rituals and sacred texts. Consider the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, for example, or this passage from the Psalms:
“You turn us back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
. . . .
“So teach us to count our days
That we may gain a wise heart.” (Psalm 90: 3-6. 12)
The unknown realm entered through the grave is not frightening to those who trust that God waits for them with open arms. We may not avoid deaths of “agony and indignity” that Kreider dreads. More importantly, though, we can avoid deaths of despair and terror. That’s worth remembering as we look to what lies ahead of us.