I was catering a little gathering at a local assisted living center recently, full of beautiful old women. There were noticeably fewer men in the place; the ones who are there are rather quiet, faintly smiling, and eating a lot. They like Blue Bell ice cream treats and cookies, but that's neither here nor there.
I was sitting with one woman, named Ms. Billie, who told me she was 86 years old. She told me that she was tired, because she wasn't sleeping well. I asked why that was, and she told me that she was afraid.
This woman, who has survived through nearly nine decades of life, who was born in the mid-1920s and walked through all the difficulties of the wars, the Great Depression, the heartaches of life, and who has seen countless joys, childbirth, love, and ended up a wealthy woman....this woman was afraid.
"What are you afraid of, Ms. Billie," I asked her.
"Of being alone, and of falling out of my bed."
This is what life comes to. We survive and overcome poverty, wars, childbirth, and we end up being afraid of the most basic things.
Ms. Billie sat and listened as I and another suggested a few things that might help, and as I commiserated with her. I had had anxiety after the loss of a pregnancy and quickly after that, the unexpected death of my mom. It was sheer misery; being unable to sleep, waking with a jarring fear everytime sleep dared come. She was going through that now, alone, at 86.
"Honey, I am 86 years old. I don't know why I don't just go on and die."
Heart-wrenching words. I don't know how to fix it for her. If I could, I'd be there every night to sit by her side so she didn't have the fear, since apparently she has no one in her family to do that. If I could I'd sprinkle her with some kind of magic dust and she'd suddenly be capable of sleeping without fear. (The Assisted Living folks are going to contact her doctor now, as a result of this conversation, so maybe something will help her; perhaps Ativan can be her magic dust.)
I felt helpless to make the rest of her life better. I tried to make those few moments better, just by listening and understanding and trying to lead her to a happier place in conversation.
It made me remember again just how short life is. She's twice my age, and when she looks back I'm sure it seems like a quick blur, in some ways. I know my four decades seem to be, to me. Wasn't I just in my twenties, having my babies and changing diapers and wondering if this was all there was going to be to life?
I'll blink and I'll be Ms. Billie's age, wondering when I'm going to die. This doesn't scare me (much), though. It inspires me! Why waste one single day not doing the things that make me feel joyous? Why would I give more hours to sitting on a couch watching tv, or moping about what I wish I had that I don't, or giving up hope? I can't. There are things I love and that make me feel fulfilled and joyous, people whom I love to share life with, projects that excite me, challenges that scare the stew out of me, but that I will do anyway. That is living! That's what I must do. I'm sure that the 44 year-old Ms. Billie would cheer me on.
"Do it while you can, honey. Do it while you can."