By Becky Evans
Now that I have reached the ripe age of 88, I am well aware that I am on the last leg of my journey. Four years ago, I finally sold my house and moved into an independent living complex, Lexington Village, in suburban Milwaukee. I am settled and content in my new home and no longer have a five-year plan for the future. What matters most, what I appreciate most, is Now.
I have kept connected to the NACC since I was first hired in 1985, but it will soon be time for me to retire for the third time, this time as proofreader for the NACC Now biweekly email. I will do so as reluctantly as I did the first time — as Vision editor in 1999 — and again in 2010 as the part-time assistant for certification renewal. NACC has seemed like home to me.
Although I do not have a life-threatening illness, I often think about my death and wonder how soon I will die. I have inherited genes for long life from both sides of my family, so I could live well into my 90s. Before I reached 70, I seldom contemplated my own death. The future seemed indefinite; life would go on forever, it seemed.
But 18 years ago, when I suffered a brief, but life-threatening stroke, I realized that death might be just around the corner. I learned then that when death might not be far off, life seems more fleeting, and the days become ever more precious as they pass, more quickly than before. After my stroke, looking out the window from my hospital room, the sky seemed a more beautiful blue, the grass and the leaves on trees seemed greener, and the bustle of human traffic on the street and people rushing in the hall was something sweet to savor.
Now, I consider myself blessed each morning that I wake and can put my feet on the floor. I anticipate that I might feel pain or sadness, but I rise with hope and gratitude for the new day. It comes as a gift, despite the distractions of the physical aches and pains that inevitably accompany age, when the body lets us down. There are days I grumble when painful knees get the better of me, days I might feel low, but there are other days when I could be bursting with such great happiness and joy that I might be able to say, like Miss Sook in Truman Capote’s beautiful “A Christmas Memory,” “I could leave the world with today in my eyes.” As a woman choosing the path of optimism, the glass more than half full, I have adopted as my watchword a very old one: “All shall be well … and all manner of thing shall be well.”
By now, all my closest longtime friends are gone. Several other elderly dear friends have also recently died. Many residents in my building are widows in their 80s and 90s, so death or departure due to failing health is frequent. I hope and pray that my apartment here will be my last home. I echo the comment of my new friend Joan on the third floor, “I want to be carried out feet first.”
Losing dear friends has meant dealing frequently with grief. My late good friend Harry Davis often said that the hardest part of growing old is surviving our friends. We may bend under the weight of their absence, but I have learned that to grow very old gracefully means choosing to live at peace with increasing losses, not letting them turn into despair or constant lament. The late beloved friends I still keenly miss remain with me in memory. I keep their photographs and their writing close by to help me, when I may feel bereft or lonely, to rekindle the good times, the closeness, the laughter and tears we shared.
In addition to physical health problems, increasing deafness, and mild but sometimes distressing memory loss, I have become more fearful at times — fearful of falling, fearful when driving. I do not fear death, but I fear the possibility of not being able to die well — though my years with the NACC have taught me to prepare for dying. I trust I will be able to accept whatever comes and pray I may cope bravely with any illness that would make me lose my independence and become a burden. To lessen this worry, I have all my legal paperwork up to date, including naming my daughter as my durable power of attorney for both healthcare and finances. Though I have not chosen a gravesite, we have made arrangements for cremation of my body.
I try to remain as physically active and mentally stimulated and creative as I can. Bingo and card games are a big source of entertainment in my building, but they are not for me. “Well, it passes the time,” my 93-year-old neighbor Alice commented, when I told her I did not find them fun or challenging. I prefer to spend my time in writing and reading. I like to sit in the stillness for long stretches, feel at peace with myself and the world – perhaps hold an ailing friend in the light, as Quakers do in prayer. (I am a member of the Milwaukee Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.)
Loss of mobility due to increasing arthritis, with dependence on a four-wheel walker, has kept me closer to home these days. For the past three years I have invited a group of talented poet friends to gather monthly around my dining table to read aloud and discuss poems they have written or ones they especially enjoyed reading. This has been a soul-satisfying activity for me, when the poets arrive rejoicing at the opportunity to be together.
The poet, nonfiction writer, and writing instructor Pat Schneider says in her latest book, How the Light Gets In: Writing as a Spiritual Practice, that in writing, as in prayer or meditation, we sit down and open ourselves to mystery. I think of my own writing, especially of poetry, as a spiritual practice, and as therapy. Much of my writing, in poetry and prose, is narrative. So much healing occurs when we tell our stories, to ourselves, to others.
Writing is an excellent way for me to document the past and record memories – of milestones, from growing up to aging, the good and the tough times, failures and mistakes as well as accomplishments, of knowing who I have become. I will probably wrestle with the big existential questions until the end. In the meantime, I pray I may spend whatever days are left to me looking at life and this beautiful, broken world with continual amazement, wonder and awe, and offer praise and gratitude for the journey.
I had to downsize my personal library by many hundreds of volumes before moving. But along with classics and many books of poetry, some helpful books on death and dying, on meditation and spirituality, came with me in addition to my Bibles: for example, Cardinal Bernardin’s reflections as he faced imminent death as a friend in Gift of Peace and Stephen Levine’s A Year to Live: How to live this year as if it were your last.
One of the common poignant experiences I have shared in old age is the wonder, the mystery of “is this the last time?” as the seasons and the annual celebrations with the people dearest to us pass. Retired hospice chaplain Deborah Gordon Cooper has captured this same experience extremely well in the final poem of her latest beautiful book of poems, Blue Window, composed when she was given the gift of an artists’ retreat in County Kerry, Ireland.
The poem title, “Because,” is the same as the first line:
and November looms
I hear a loon
call in the bay
I think that this
may be the last time.
The last magenta
the small machinery
that holds them
to the branch.
I pray we all
Amen. May we all fall as softly.
Becky Evans was the editor of Vision from 1985 to 1999 and has served the NACC in other capacities since then.