During a phone visit with my cousin Caron lately, she mentioned her current disability with more surprise than regret.
"I still feel so frisky," she said. "I've always been active. It's just recently that I've started to look old. When did this happen? And so sudden! It's frustrating that my spirit is so youthful and my body is so weak."
There is that struggle between inside and outside personas that exists within so many of us.
Sometimes reconciling this conflict means going with what is and letting go of life as you wish it could be.
Our neighbor Phyllis has loved travel all her life, even working as a travel agent for some years. But now her need for thrice weekly kidney dialysis keeps her tethered to home base. It's something that she has come to accept most of the time, only occasionally thinking wistfully of places she has yet to see and often she is comforted by vivid memories of the wonderful adventures of her life.
There are times when outside reticence masks inner shyness or when outside arrogance masks a terrible fear and insecurity -- and make it sadly likely that the person will be misjudged by those who rush to accept face value as the ultimate truth.
Sometimes our inner selves learn to hide out of necessity.
Seeing a recent video that I recorded for Northwestern University, my dear friend Sister Rita McCormack, one of my two favorite nun teachers who has known me since I was 8 years old, exclaimed " That shy little girl I knew so many years ago is gone and it's a miracle!" It is a miracle that I have learned over the years to feel shy but still do what I need to do anyway. Somewhere inside, that shy little girl still lives, sometimes cringing with fear, but she steps aside when I need to look confident and outgoing.
At a block party yesterday, an attractive woman who appeared outgoing and confident sidled up to me and introduced herself, telling me how uncomfortable she was coming to the party alone. "Part of me has one foot in junior high and fears being a wallflower..." she said while I nodded with total understanding. A lot of us carry the insecurities and fears so rampant in junior high with us for decades. They stay dormant until a challenging social situation brings them insistently to the surface of our consciousness and we feel anxious once more. But our growing wisdom has taught us to triumph over these fears by going to a party or giving a speech anyway -- and not being embarrassed to admit that stage fright and social anxiety can, at least temporarily, nibble away at our outer confidence but will not keep us from doing what we want to do.
Sometimes the discrepancy between our inner selves and outer realities is rooted in wishful denial of the present.
During my most recent visit with my dear friend Mary and her husband John, who is increasingly disabled by dementia, heart disease and other medical conditions that make walking almost impossible for him, John turned to me and smiled brightly before retiring to bed the last night I was there.
"I'll ask Mary to set the alarm to get me up early tomorrow morning," he said. "I want to give you a proper send-off and carry your luggage to the car for you."
There is no disability in the soul.
Even as a body begins to shut down, the spirit can soar with the vigor and passions that defined our younger selves.
When she was 86, my beloved Aunt Molly struggled with a variety of physical ills that she tended to minimize in conversations with us but which started to overtake her as her steps slowed, her heart pain increased and her fears of dependence and disability far exceeded any fears she might have had about mortality, about not being. And yet, she remained a powerful writer, her gift of observation and her facility with words unabated by her physical frailty.
After she died of a heart attack just after New Year's in 2004, we found her last poem on her desk and in her computer. It was written only a few days before she passed away, inspired by her last ever trip to her local beauty shop and the sight of a woman representing what she most feared becoming.
Elizabeth C. McCoy
Has dressed her as carefully
As a very favorite doll.
The white tennis and socks
The blue cotton pantsuit
On the frail twig of a body
Fresh as a good child's.
Hands quiet in her lap, she stares ahead
Oblivious of the bustle of other women
Being noisily translated to multiple dialects
Has brought her here to be collected
When the hair is washed and brushed
Into the proper soft, thin curls
With pink scalp showing through.
She sits self-contained as still water,
Patient as stone,
Withdrawn by time from sentience and
The irrelevancies of communication.
Someone who still loves what is left
Will come to get her
And then in some other place
She will wait.
We were comforted by the fact that, even as her body was shutting down, Aunt Molly's mind was still active, still creative, still facing her fears of death and decay in the poetry that she had written since childhood.
Even as we all face the challenges that aging inevitably brings, we can live life fully, mindfully and meaningfully by paying attention not just to our aches and pains, to ways that we are slowing down, but also to that ageless, feisty, life-affirming and vibrant spirit within.