Last week I had cataract surgery, a rite of passage, it seems, for people my age. Some might call it and similar events we older folks experience a speed bump, still others the new normal.
I recall that when I retired from college teaching in 1990 I received a large brown paper envelope from a large distributing firm enclosing commercial coupons for the following:
Arthritis pain medicine
Undergarments for leakage control
A specially designed chair for people with back problems
Door chimes to extend the sound of the doorbell
Magnifier for reading
Side-cutting nail clipper
Specially designed slippers for people with feet that change in size during the day
A hearing aid – and more.
As I flipped over the glossy four-color ads, I felt myself deflating like a punctured tire. If these products were selected specially for me, who was I? What was in store for me in this new life?
Now, some 20 years later, I know. Cataract surgery is one older-adult hurdle as are hip/knee replacement, morning stiffness, and many others. Comedian Dave Barry has written an account of his colonoscopy, another rite of passage for everyone over a certain age, that will cause your endorphins to chase each other with playful glee.
The news reported that former South African leader Nelson Mandela was recovering after a short hospital stay as was appropriate for his age –the 90s.In other words, there are core changes related to aging and also illnesses everyone gets.
Yet what is appropriate for this time of life? Change often comes so subtly I am not aware of it until one day I have to say, “Yes, I am old, and that’s okay” and my children murmur to themselves, “Mother is old” – but not to me.
In my book Border Crossing: A Spiritual Journey, where I mention the above list, I compare the way we older people and the young ones resemble each other and our rites of passage. I had written several books on aging for various agencies. Now it was time to chronicle my own story. The book is about my journey from full-time employment to being granted more than 2,000 discretionary hours each year. It was truly a border crossing.
Both young and old identify closely with the physical body and its changes – the young with developing strength and defining body image , the old with lessening strength and dealing with increasingly poorly defined shape and firmness.
Both old and young use drugs, sometimes, sometimes to excess, the younger group uses street drugs, energy drinks, and soda; the other group coffee and prescription drugs. I’ve noticed some of my age group take about ten to 15 prescription drugs each day.
Teenagers like their sofas overstuffed and roomy enough for all limbs at one time or else they head for the floor. Older adults look for a firm chair because we know a soft couch spells disaster. They may sit on it for eternity. And the floor? Surely you jest.
Both make travel a way of life – the one to games, band tours, field trips; the other on tour buses, recreational vehicles and airplanes to see the world – for a while.
Both are thinking of changing housing. The young ones are off to college dormitories or their own apartments. The older ones head to apartments, retirement centers and nursing homes.
A sixteen-year-old is aspiring to acquire a driver’s license. An 80-year-old is thinking of turning it in. Many in my group are ready to get off the road, yet sorrowful, for without a driver’s license goes independence.
In my book Prayers of an Omega one prayer is titled “I sure liked to drive my car.” When I read that piece at an older adult retreat a few years ago, I noticed an older man in the front row sobbing silently. Later, his friend told me he had given up his driver’s license the day before. He identified with my words: I miss the feel of a ring of hard keys in my pocket. I reach for them, just to give them a caress. But they’re not there. I want to go out and start the car. For no reason. Then I remember. The car is gone. I will never back it out of the garage onto the road again. I will never again experience the power of the engine with me at the wheel.... Reach out your hand, my Lord, and place it here in the warm hollow of my hand where I used to hold the keys.
Letting go of the car keys may be a rite of passage but also a high speed bump.
So back to my cataract surgery. I am recovering thanks to great doctors and modern technology. I am waiting to get new lenses for my glasses so that I can read again. There will be more speed bumps, more rites of passage. Then it is time to read again what I once wrote for others, especially my chapter on turning losses into gains in Life After 50: A Positive Look at Aging in the Faith Community: "Old age need not major in losses if transitions [rites of passage and speed bumps] are seen as movement toward the culmination of a life well lived with God and humanity." It is a goal that keeps me going.
And while I’m mentioning my books, a friend e-mailed me this brief review published recently in a library newsletter: The Atchison (Kansas) library has a new book “How to Write your Personal or Family History: If you don’t do it who will?” by Katie Funk Wiebe. A couple of chapters caught my eyes. “Writing your last ‘rites,’” “Writing about the life others don’t see,” and “The best and worst times in your life.” This is worth reading, especially if you are having trouble getting started . – Cora Chambers, editor