Tuesdays with Morrie

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Seventh Tuesday We Talk About the Fear o f Aging

The Seventh Tuesday We Talk About the Fear o f Aging

Morrie lost his battle. Someone was now wiping his behind.

He faced this with typically brave acceptance. No longer able to reach behind him when he used the com­mode, he informed Connie of his latest limitation. "Would you be embarrassed to do it for me?" She said no.

I found it typical that he asked her first.

It took some getting used to, Morrie admitted, be­cause it was, in a way, complete surrender to the disease. The most personal and basic things had now been taken from him-going to the bathroom, wiping his nose, washing his private parts. With the exception of breathing and swallowing his food, he was dependent on others for nearly everything.

I asked Morrie how he managed to stay positive through that.

"Mitch, it's funny," he said. "I'm an independent person, so my inclination was to fight all of this-being helped from the car, having someone else dress me. I felt a little ashamed, because our culture tells us we should be ashamed if we can't wipe our own behind. But then I figured, Forget what the culture says. I have ignored the culture much of my life. I am not going to be ashamed. What's the big deal?

"And you know what? The strangest thing." What's that?

"I began to enjoy my dependency. Now I enjoy when they turn me over on my side and rub cream on my behind so I don't get sores. Or when they wipe my brow, or they massage my legs. I revel in it. I close my eyes and soak it up. And it seems very familiar to me.

"It's like going back to being a child again. Someone to bathe you. Someone to lift you. Someone to wipe you. We all know how to be a child. It's inside all of us. For me, it's just remembering how to enjoy it.

"The truth is, when our mothers held us, rocked us, stroked our heads-none of us ever got enough of that. We all yearn in some way to return to those days when we were completely taken care of-unconditional love, un­conditional attention. Most of us didn't get enough.

"I know I didn't."

I looked at Morrie and I suddenly knew why he so enjoyed my leaning over and adjusting his microphone, or fussing with the pillows, or wiping his eyes. Human touch. At seventy-eight, he was giving as an adult and taking as a child.

Later that day, we talked about aging. Or maybe 1 should say the fear of aging-another of the issues on my what's-bugging-my-generation list. On my ride from the Boston airport, I had counted the billboards that featured young and beautiful people. There was a handsome young man in a cowboy hat, smoking a cigarette, two beautiful young women smiling over a shampoo bottle, a sultry­looking teenager with her jeans unsnapped, and a sexy woman in a black velvet dress, next to a man in a tuxedo, the two of them snuggling a glass of scotch.

Not once did I see anyone who would pass for over thirty-five. I told Morrie I was already feeling over the hill, much as I tried desperately to stay on top of it. I worked out constantly. Watched what I ate. Checked my hairline in the mirror. I had gone from being proud to say my age-because of all I had done so young-to not bringing it up, for fear I was getting too close to forty and, therefore, professional oblivion.

Morrie had aging in better perspective.

"All this emphasis on youth-I don't buy it," he said. "Listen, I know what a misery being young can be, so don't tell me it's so great. All these kids who came to me with their struggles, their strife, their feelings of inade­quacy, their sense that life was miserable, so bad they wanted to kill themselves . . .

"And, in addition to all the miseries, the young are not wise. They have very little understanding about life. Who wants to live every day when you don't know what's going on? When people are manipulating you, telling you to buy this perfume and you'll be beautiful, or this pair of jeans and you'll be sexy-and you believe them! It's such nonsense."

Weren't you ever afraid to grow old, I asked?

"Mitch, I embrace aging."

Embrace it?

"It's very simple. As you grow, you learn more. If you stayed at twenty-two, you'd always be as ignorant as you were at twenty-two. Aging is not just decay, you know. It's growth. It's more than the negative that you're going to die, it's also the positive that you understand you're going to die, and that you live a better life because of it."

Yes, I said, but if aging were so valuable, why do people always say, "Oh, if I were young again." You never hear people say, "I wish I were sixty-five."

He smiled. "You know what that reflects? Unsatisfied lives. Unfulfilled lives. Lives that haven't found meaning. Because if you've found meaning in your life, you don't want to go back. You want to go forward. You want to see more, do more. You can't wait until sixty-five. "Listen. You should know something. All younger people should know something. If you're always battling against getting older, you're always going to be unhappy, because it will happen anyhow.

"And Mitch?"

He lowered his voice.

"The fact is, you are going to die eventually." I nodded.

"It won't matter what you tell yourself." I know.

"But hopefully," he said, "not for a long, long time." He closed his eyes with a peaceful look, then asked me to adjust the pillows behind his head. His body needed constant adjustment to stay comfortable. It was propped in the chair with white pillows, yellow foam, and blue towels. At a quick glance, it seemed as if Morrie were being packed for shipping.

"Thank you," he whispered as I moved the pillows. No problem, I said.

"Mitch. What are you thinking?"

I paused before answering. Okay, I said, I'm wonder­ing how you don't envy younger, healthy people.

"Oh, I guess I do." He closed his eyes. "I envy them being able to go to the health club, or go for a swim. Or dance. Mostly for dancing. But envy comes to me, I feel it, and then I let it go. Remember what I said about detachment? Let it go. Tell yourself, `That's envy, I'm going to separate from it now.' And walk away."

He coughed-a long, scratchy cough-and he pushed a tissue to his mouth and spit weakly into it. Sit­ting there, I felt so much stronger than he, ridiculously so, as if I could lift him and toss him over my shoulder like a sack of flour. I was embarrassed by this superiority, because I did not feel superior to him in any other way.

How do you keep from envying . . .

"What?"

Me?

He smiled.

"Mitch, it is impossible for the old not to envy the young. But the issue is to accept who you are and revel in that. This is your time to be in your thirties. I had my time to be in my thirties, and now is my time to be seventy-eight.

"You have to find what's good and true and beautiful in your life as it is now. Looking back makes you compet­itive. And, age is not a competitive issue."

He exhaled and lowered his eyes, as if to watch his breath scatter into the air.

"The truth is, part of me is every age. I'm a three-­year-old, I'm a five-year-old, I'm a thirty-seven-year-old, I'm a fifty-year-old. I've been through all of them, and I know what it's like. I delight in being a child when it's appropriate to be a child. I delight in being a wise old man when it's appropriate to be a wise old man. Think of all I can be! I am every age, up to my own. Do you understand?"

I nodded.

"How can I be envious of where you are-when I've been there myself?"

"Fate succumbs many a species: one alone jeopardises itself."

-W. H. AUDEN, MORRIE 'S FAVORITE " POET

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