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.