Thursday, May 15, 2014

Rita's Lessons in Aging with Grace

                                                          Rita Stack

Rita Stack was one of a kind.

She was a unique presence at our community center with her luminous smile and friendly greetings.  There were no strangers in Rita's life -- only friends and soon-to-be friends. She was incredibly active, a fixture at the water aerobics class, at mental health trivia games, bingo, Mexican Train -- and she always stole the show at the annual Follies variety show where she portrayed, variously, the world's oldest living Mouseketeer,  a honeymooner, and the reigning Miss Sun City Anthem.  Her sense of humor was legendary, her generosity of spirit an inspiration.

Rita Stack, 93, who died quickly, quietly and unceremoniously on May 3, was perhaps the most beloved member of our community, moving here in 2008 when her widowed daughter Yvette bought a home and invited her mother to leave her apartment in San Francisco to join her here.  

"It's odd how things turn out," Rita told me several years ago as we rested briefly during a vigorous protest and picketing of a copper mine proposed near our homes. "Yvette thought she would be taking care of me. But here I am taking care of her. I feel so blessed that I could be here to help her. It was simply meant to be -- and I'm so grateful that I can be here for her."

Rita, indeed, seemed the stronger of the two as her daughter has struggled with a serious respiratory ailment the past few years. But despite the health challenges Yvette faced, this dynamic duo was at the center of so many celebrations  -- dressed in red, white and blue and throwing candy to the crowds as they drove their golf cart in the Fourth of July parade, dressing up for Halloween, celebrating Christmas with both a joyous spirit and deep faith. 

Many of us have considered Rita the ultimate role model for aging gracefully. She lived to love and to give. It was always about others. And in her giving, she made an indelible impression on others.

"I didn't know her well, but I liked her so much," my neighbor Phyllis said today. "The first time I met her out at the pool four years ago, she smiled at me and said 'Oh, my! You are so pretty!' And I told her  she had a friend forever."

We were all talking about Rita during her Celebration of Life today -- and how she lived fully and joyfully until her last day on this earth.

The large ballroom was filled to standing room only as people spoke of how they had loved Rita and how she had been a role model and substitute mother for so many of us.

Diane, her water aerobics instructor, told a story about Rita calming her as she fretted about low attendance at the class one day. "She told me 'Don't worry about the people who aren't here. Concentrate on the people who are here!' And later, as she caught me frowning over the attendance sheet, Rita leaned over to me and whispered 'Stop worrying!'"

Paul, a member of the theatrical society, talked about encountering Rita in the semi-darkness of backstage during a dress rehearsal for the Follies show. He greeted her enthusiastically and she replied with equal joy: "Hello, Betty! It's so good to see you!"

The crowd erupted with laughter at this point, Betty and her partner Kathleen laughing most heartily of all. Betty is about the same height as Paul with close-cropped hair. Paul continued with his story: "So I bent down to kiss her and she stroked  my cheek, discovering my two days growth of stubble. She stopped short. 'You're not Betty!" she said. And I said 'No, I'm Paul.' Her face brightened. 'Oh, Paul!' she said, laughing. "Well, I'm truly glad to see you, too!"

A woman told of the time she encountered Rita at a New Year's Eve party in this same ballroom a few years ago. She looked more joyous than usual and the woman asked her what was so delighting her.

"My daughter," Rita said, beaming, pointing to Yvette on the dance floor. "My daughter is feeling better tonight, well enough to dance. She's still my baby, you know. And it brings such joy to my heart to see my little girl dancing..."

Another man in the crowded ballroom talked quietly about his grief over losing his mother in 2005 and "I thought I had lost everything, but in 2008, I met Rita and she was like a second mother to me. She cared so much about what I thought and how I was feeling. She was -- and is -- an angel."

And so many spoke of Rita as a role model for the rest of us. We explored the lessons Rita taught us about living a graceful and meaningful older age.

Rita's lessons in graceful aging include:

1. Emotional generosity builds bridges.  Rita had a smile and a friendly greeting for everyone. She genuinely cared how people were feeling. She listened well (even if she was in the pool minus her hearing aids) and was more interested in learning about others' life stories than having the spotlight on herself, though her own story was a compelling one of enduring early hardships with energy and imagination. She knew that the secret to winning friends was not by overwhelming others with her own  life achievements, but by helping others to feel loved, admired and important and, most of all, by being a wonderful friend to others.

2. Good health isn't just luck or good genes but can also be a choice. Rita looked younger and more vigorous than her age due, at least in part, to a lifelong pattern of healthy eating and exercise. She was lean and fit all her life and, even after she needed a walker as her balance became a little more uncertain, she took a daily stroll around the neighborhood and was a frequent presence at the fitness center, never missing her water aerobics class. She never gave up her lifetime habit of being active and engaged with others and with life.

3. Define your life with positives rather than negatives. Although Rita, a child of the Depression, a young wife who didn't see her husband for nearly four years during World War II, a mother of six children, a woman who faced a painful life transition in middle of her years, certainly had her challenges in life, what she emphasized was the positive: how cute her husband was as a youth, how proud she was of having five children in five years, how special each of her six children, twelve grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren were to her, how she had loved every place she had lived or visited, how blessed she felt that none of her children had ever gone to bed hungry, as she had so many times during her own Depression-era childhood. Even as some limitations of age appeared, she continued with aplomb. She moved with enthusiasm and vigor on her walker, never pitying herself, but talking about how fortunate she was to still be mobile and active.

4. It's never too late to try something new.  Rita was up for learning and trying anything. She didn't worry about looking foolish. She thoroughly enjoyed herself -- and spread that joy around. She was a genuine star of the theatrical society because of her sheer joy in being there, in that moment, in the company of dear friends. She was funny and game and invariably delightful in her various star turns.

5. Kindness is a key to living fully. At a time of life when many are set in their ways and soured on life, Rita always had something good to say to or about everyone. She always had time to stop and listen, to ask questions, to remember the challenges of another. People mattered to her -- both close friends and acquaintances.  She was a perfect antidote to the chronic complainers, mean girls (and guys), to the perpetual critics and cranks one too often finds in a retirement community. Through her shining example, we learned that a life lived with kindness and consideration for others is a rich and fulfilling one. And it is a life treasured and celebrated by more people than she ever could have imagined.

As the celebration of Rita's life continued, Yvette and her brother Leo spoke of their joy in having had Rita as a mother -- of her infectious zest for life and her quiet courage when life was painful and, in the privacy of her home and with her family, she faced her own tribulations.

Her friend Betty read passages from Rita's journal that revealed both the hardships of her childhood and lifelong feelings of good fortune. There was a video of her life in pictures along with filmed scenes of Rita's "Follies" highlights. Throughout the film, the song "Aquarius" played. And we learned that whenever Rita was alone in the house she and Yvette shared, she would put on her favorite album, the original cast recording of "Hair" and play her all-time favorite song "Aquarius" over and over.

                                          When the  moon is in the seventh house
                                          And Jupiter aligns with Mars
                                          Then peace will guide the planets
                                          And love will steer the stars...

With the song still ringing in our ears, we all went out to the lawn behind the community center and stood in a very large circle. In the center of the circle, Yvette and Leo released yellow balloons, embracing each other and calling out to the heavens their love for their  mother. The rest of us released white balloons with blessings and resolutions to emulate Rita by living each day with more love and kindness and joy. 

The white balloons clustered around the two yellow balloons, soaring high into the bright blue Arizona sky.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Crossroads and Conscience

In my nearly eternal search for dietary health and sanity, I've been trying a non-diet of clean foods with an emphasis on fruit and vegetables while slashing my intake of processed foods and limiting carbohydrates like bread and pasta. Rather than focusing on deprivation, I'm striving for balance and for learning to savor foods that are both healthy and delicious.

This afternoon, I headed to the supermarket for more raw vegetables for a salad and a few packets of frozen vegetables. But coming out of the frozen food section, I found myself staring at the bakery area. I felt the near-magnetic pull of bagels.

As I stood wrestling with my conscience, two different neighbors wandered by. The first smiled and admitted to a special trip to the market to satisfy her yearnings for a fistful of Hershey bars. Chocolate! I stared at her. She has kidney disease. Chocolate is high up on her list of forbidden foods. I wanted to say "But you know better...."

But there I was, checking out the bagels.

Another neighbor cruised by, not noticing our friendly greetings. He looked past us, muttering -- was it to himself or to us? -- "I came to get some cookies for a pig-out!" A pig-out??? He has diabetes with eye complications and cardiac problems. 

What was this: death wish central?

And it made me think how often we sabotage our best efforts at healthy choices -- for the momentary pleasure instead of long-term benefits or to calm the anger or anxiety or a myriad of other troubling feelings that are, nonetheless, never quite stilled by guilty treats. Or maybe some simply are tired of trying so hard to avoid health disasters when these are looming so insistently. Sometimes we just give up trying so hard or trying at all. 

So the diabetic man got his stash of cookies. I saw him later sitting in his car, about a block from his home, hunched over his loot and eating cookies quickly, furtively, in a binge that may or may not escape his wife's attention.

But blood sugar and potassium levels and weight are figures that don't lie. And those toxic lies we tell ourselves:

"Just this once..."

"A little won't hurt..."

"It doesn't really make that much difference..."

But it does make a difference.

A little can lead to a lot.

And this once can go on and on.

Our time, our window of opportunity to turn things around isn't infinite. Our chances to improve our health and prospects for a more mobile and vigorous old age are dwindling with every cheat and treat and positive change deferred. 

I looked at my neighbors. They're in their seventies and are starting to have severe health problems as a result of their chronic conditions. I'm only a year away from that perilous decade with some health challenges of my own -- high blood pressure and pre-diabetes -- that could grow into major life-limiting/life-threatening health problems unless I commit to a new way of eating and living.

And I wondered: what were we doing to ourselves -- seeking out great quantities of cookies and chocolate and bagels?

A little step toward health today might help to prevent a devastating choice tomorrow. 

A painful flashback hit me: just this morning, when I accompanied another neighbor Phyllis (whose kidney disease is an inherited malady) to her kidney dialysis session -- a painful ordeal she undergoes three times a week -- we saw a familiar figure emerging from the treatment area to the waiting room. The woman, in a wheelchair, looked considerably younger than either of us but has already lost a leg to diabetes and had been getting kidney dialysis for some time. Phyllis looked puzzled. It was only 6:15 and people were getting hooked up to the machines now. No one would be finished for some hours. We looked at the woman and her husband who was pushing the wheelchair. Their faces spoke of quiet grief and resignation as they left the building. Phyllis exhaled slowly. "She is quitting dialysis," she said quietly. "She hasn't been wanting to continue for a while..." She bit her lip. We both knew that the last person who made the choice to quit dialysis was dead a week later.

Sometimes, of course, health catastrophes are totally out of our control. Illness can strike regardless of the choices we make. 

But at some junctures, we can choose to fight for health with wise, life-affirming choices. There are small crossroads in our lives, moments when one healthy choice can lead to another or one poor choice can also lead to another.  There are times when we can step back, let our yearnings for health and vitality prevail over the toxic quick-fix. There are opportunities we have to do something different and better for ourselves.

There are times...

I put the bag of mini-bagels back on the shelf and walked quickly away.