Nature doesn’t always wait for us to hand over our toys. Sometimes, she takes them away without our permission. When I was 16, I memorized a poem that struck me even then with its poignant truth about the cycle of life. In his poem “Nature,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) compares nature to a loving mother getting a sleepy child ready for bed. The child looks back at his toys, reluctant to leave them but knowing he must.
So Nature deals with us, and takes away
Our playthings one by one, and by the hand
Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay.
Some of our broken playthings are our bodies. Breasts droop, bellies expand, hair falls, wrinkles beget wrinkles. Sexual drive may diminish or disappear. Even the fittest among us eventually lose our athletic edge. Our health may become more fragile. Here, letting go means accepting what we can’t change with as much tranquility as we can manage. And appreciating and using what we still have.
To let go is to give up the myth that I am in control. Or that I’ll live forever. We may intellectually acknowledge that we will die, but we secretly believe we’ll be an exception. When I was a judge, one of my colleagues fell in the court garage and broke his hip. He was indignant. “I never expected anything like this to happen!” He was 93 years old.
As we age, some of us gracefully accept our slowing gait or need for bifocals. Others want to look eternally young. Joan Rivers looked thirty when she died at eighty. But it cost her a lot of money, physical discomfort, and, one imagines, anxiety. And she died. She did go out as she wanted to, though: “looking good.”
I’m more and more aware that I’m not the independent, self-sufficient actor I pretend to be. In fact, I never have been. I will continue to do as much as I can, but increasingly I’ll need the help of others. Acceptance of this can be the path to tranquility. Mother Theresa said we lack peace because we’ve forgotten that we belong to each other. To acknowledge my need of others blesses them and me.
But to accept our reality is not to give up. My friend Rick, barely 60, is my hero. Nearly blind and getting worse, he reads with a large magnifying glass. He’s learning Braille. He has stopped driving at night and probably should stop altogether, but he lives in a suburb where public transportation is slow and often unavailable.
He plays the piano beautifully, but his music has to be digitally enlarged so he can read the notes. Nevertheless, Rick perseveres. He has begun to volunteer his computer skills with organizations that support people with disabilities. He’s brave. But sometimes, in the stillness of the night, I imagine he weeps. It’s not easy to let go of our bodies.
Old people are not the only ones who are called to relinquishment. One day, I got into a court elevator with a tall, slim, dark-haired young man I’ll call Mike. Somewhere between parking and the second floor, he blurted out, “Judge, I have AIDS.” He was 34 years old when he died.
I won’t sentimentalize Mike’s last months. I saw the weight drop off. He became unsteady on his feet. He began to lose sight in one eye. He had little energy, and his mental abilities deteriorated. Sometimes he was moody or unreasonable. Eventually, the disease stripped Mike of everything: he was bedridden, blind, confused, unable to care for himself.
What is left when everything else is gone?
Let me suggest that what is left, what is most human, is the capacity for love.
Mike did not wear a mask. He reinforced for me that I am not a human doing or a human having but a human being, capable of giving love and worthy of receiving it. Mike taught me that there is no point in burdening today with regrets about the past or anxieties about the future. We can’t do anything about either. The question becomes “How can I live most fully today? Who can I help today? What beauty can I see, appreciate, be grateful for, delight in today?”
Mike understood the joy of living in the present moment, of accepting and even rejoicing in the way things are. When he told me he was going blind, I asked, “How do you keep up your spirits?”
He said, “Well, they told me I can have a seeing-eye dog. I can get him as a puppy. I’m really excited about that because I always wanted a puppy and never had one.”
I called him at his home when he became bedridden. To my surprise, he sounded happy. “I’m having a wonderful day. A beautiful person named Joanna came to my room to cut my hair. She has a terrific voice. She sang me gospel songs while she gave me a haircut.”
Mike began to tell me about Joanna, about the pain she had suffered in her life. And I realized that he had given Joanna the gift of compassionate listening, even as she was ministering to him. As sick as he was, he was still able to give and receive love.
As his lungs began to fail, it became harder for Mike to speak. But I will never forget him. His letting go was complete. Mike’s final word to me was not a cry of despair, but a whispered prayer of thanks.
Excerpted from Love’s Way: Living Peacefully with Your Family as Your Parents Age by Carolyn Miller Parr and Sig Cohen, copyright January 2019 by Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts. Used by permission. All rights reserved.