Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Embracing What Is

"How are you -- really?"

The voice of our young friend Ryan was soft and caring during his morning phone call to Bob this morning.

They've come a long way together, Bob and Ryan. They met in the Big Brothers program when Ryan was a fun, quirky nine-year-old who had something major in common with Bob: temporal lobe epilepsy. But soon they discovered many more interests in common and, over the years, Ryan became much more than a Little Brother. He became a dear friend and, in a very real sense, a surrogate son for us. He is now a 31-year-old psychotherapist/social worker in Los Angeles who calls Bob several times a week on his way to work.

So his question...and Bob's answer...go well beyond the usual "How are you?-I'm fine." routine.

"Sometimes I struggle," Bob told him. "This aging thing entails so many losses. For me, it hasn't been any one catastrophic loss, but a series of things, gradually falling away. I used to love running. But no matter how much I train and hope, that's not a possibility anymore. I love to learn. I'm studying quantum mechanics, but am realizing that some of it is beyond me. There are things I don't and will never understand. So much of my old life seems to be slipping away..."

"But certainly as some things slip away, other things replace these?" Ryan's response was half question, half hopeful statement.

"Only the acceptance of what is," Bob said. "And joy in what's still possible."

It's true.

As time goes on, we do lose vestiges of our lives in youth and middle age. As much as possible, we try to find substitutes.

When we can no longer run, we walk. When we can no longer dance vigorously, we dance at a slower pace, then with our arms. When arthritic hands make playing a favorite musical instrument impossible, love of music can still fill our hearts. My friend actor Maurice Sherbanee, who is 84, can no longer play his beloved guitar, but he has started composing music that is played by younger guitarists around the globe. Composing music for others to play makes him feel vibrantly alive and connected. The You Tube video below features his composition "The Streets of Rio."

And so we go on. I always envisioned myself dancing well into old age, but didn't make allowances during those long ago daydreams for arthritic knees and feet. So I walk to music and am working on making a habit of Tai Chi, hoping to achieve better balance that will preclude serious falls. And I love to watch dance performances, dancing in my heart along with the performers. I love remembering those times when Bob and I greeted the dawn by running five miles through the hills of Glendale, CA and celebrated several New Year's Days by running in Griffith Park with our older friend Lou, a recovering alcoholic, who would grin as he puffed along and say "Not bad for an old drunk, am I?" I love remembering dance performances and the classes where ballet, tap, jazz and musical theatre dance seemed to be so effortless and joyous.

 I smile at the memories and am grateful for what remains: I can walk and swim and celebrate the joy of movement.

There comes a time when life narrows down in its possibilities. I see it in some neighbors now: those who can no longer walk with ease or at all, those whose minds and memories are fading, those who live in pain and with catastrophic illnesses. And yet I also see quiet acceptance, even celebrations of what is.

There is gratitude for life itself. His memories are fading, his independence long gone, my friend John still loves to sit on his patio, basking in sunshine and the smiles and waves of passersby. She lives with the pain of advanced cancer and dialysis treatments for kidney failure, but my friend Phyllis still welcomes each day as an opportunity to talk with friends and family and to cuddle her dogs Mollie and Gizmo. 

And so, despite the complexities of answering the question "How are you?" from someone dear, more often than not, the fact that we are living, enjoying another day of sunshine or healing rain or snow that makes home seem cozier than ever, is cause for quiet celebration.


  1. I hadn't realized it till reading this but I have also substituted for losses. We often aren't even aware of the "downsizing" we just do. I can no longer ride horse back but I can grow carrots and save apples for my neighbors horses. I haven't the wherewithal to write a book like you but blogging has filled the need. I guess we are only really old when we can no longer adjust.

  2. Adaptation. Yes, we all have to learn to live with our limitations. For some of us, or at least with some things, it is easier than with others. But there is always a bit of nostalgic regret. And yes, just knowing that we are alive and enjoying our world is indeed cause for celebration.

  3. Beautifully written!

  4. As we grow older, life offers us the opportunity for reflection and introspection on a grand scale! We are fortunate if we understand this as an opportunity rather than an affliction! As I walk into town most days, I am so grateful that I can still do this when I see so many confined to wheelchairs and electric mobility vehicles. Getting around and about as the years progress is a luxury many of us 'seniors' are often denied -- use it or lose it is my mantra at the moment. It is so important for our well-being to understand how to live with the passage of time and when not to fight it!

  5. I heard my daughter say, "it is what it is", describing all the adaptations she's making living with a toddler. Yes, indeed, what's in front of us is the reality we have to face, and facing it with grace and enthusiasm will reward us with satisfaction and appreciation of all the things we can still do.

  6. I was thinking about taking a Road Scholar trip to walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain next year. Then I got to walk half a mile in my new hiking shoes and realized my feet would probably bother me too much. I'm adjusting my expectations.

  7. Hi Kathy, Sorry I have been absent for awhile. I have been through two months of horrible knee/leg pain --and finally had surgery... In a word, it has been tough. So--when someone asks me, How are you?, my answer was hard... For you see, I'm a positive person who tries to stay UP at all times. I always want to see the good and don't want to admit that I may not be feeling so good.... The aging stuff is for the birds... I have life to live and hiking to do and places to go.... I am getting better and trying to stay positive.. BUT--it's not always easy.


  8. I hope to follow in my father's footsteps. He is 87 and mentally sharp but not quite as quick on his feet as he once was. Overtime I see him slowing down, but I feel myself doing the same thing. I'm 20 plus years younger than he is, but I'm already making noises when I stand up!

  9. What a wonderful example your friend is, who is writing for guitar since he can no longer play. That piece is lovely.

    I need to take this post to heart. I feel like I am aging too fast, and I don't like it. It is time to adjust my attitude.

  10. Acceptance: the key to life more fully. I truly believe that we all must come to the place where we learn to accept what is, or live defeated, unhappy lives. Thank you for your wonderful reflective piece.

  11. I think finding this acceptance must be harder for those who have always taken their body's strength and agility for granted. Being the most unathletic person imaginable, I'm not experiencing these particular losses yet, but I dread the thought of losing my mental agility and am exercising hard to prevent or at least delay this. Wise words as always, Kathy.