The telltale soundtrack of Marie’s walker clicking and clacking as it rose and fell in cadence with her footsteps, beckoned my pre-dawn attention. I thought for sure, at 5am, that the coast would be clear and I’d be able to use the bathroom long before Marie awakened.
Five A.M. was ridiculously out of character for me, a lifelong sleep lover, to even have considered being awake. However, I had recently embarked upon a new regimen of early morning meditation and was, for the moment, dedicated to it.
Yanking on my bedroom doorknob, I unstuck the door and stepped out into the hall. Marie didn’t hear the warped door unglueing itself from its frame, noisy as it was; nor did she see me, although I was easily within her peripheral vision.
Focused like a laser, Marie stood firm in front of the full-length mirror which hung on her bedroom door. Bolstered by the strength of her walker, she looked deep into her eyes – yet somehow past them. “Thank you. Thank you for everything”, she said.
“Marie, what are you doing?” I asked.
Here was Marie: 86 years old and living inside a body that had mutinied against her in myriad ways. She’d suffered from multiple physical indignities (noted here from head to toe): a brain tumor; double cataract surgery; open heart surgery; diabetes; lupus; severe incontinence; excruciating arthritis.
Lastly -but mostly – was Marie’s twisted and rebellious large intestine: its volatility and unpredictability held her captive on the toilet for at least three hours each day. No time of the day or night was deemed off-limits. While there, Marie pieced together pad upon pad upon diaper, for future use. Or, she immersed herself in crossword puzzles.
One morning, I left for the Zen center at 5:45 am and returned at 8 am, to discover that she had been on the toilet that entire time.
Marie had lost her son Philip to drowning when he was just 20 years old. She never talked about it, but I know she never recovered from it. Thereafter, she went to college and received her degree at age 55. She’d divorced her husband at age 65, after enduring almost 40 years with a man whom she knew was a bad match within the first year of their marriage. A good man and a good provider – just not the right one for her, and always working. Marie still managed – singlehandedly, she always says – to raise four good children, one of whom, Diane, is my best friend of 20 years. Marie’s 93-year-old eldest sibling – a brother – died this year, leaving Marie the sole survivor of her original clan of eight.
“I’m saying thank you”, she answered. “I’m thanking God for one more day. For everything. For my health – what’s left of it. For my children. For my home.”
“Amazing,” I responded. “You do this every morning, Marie?”
“Every morning,” she said.
“Since when?” I asked.
“For years,” she said.
I was stunned. Observing Marie from the outside, I had been unable to comprehend why she would even WANT to endure one more day of the life she was living. Housebound, she lived inside a triangle drawn from her bed to her toilet to her easy chair. When she wasn’t on the toilet, she was in front of the television – her non-stop companion – from the time she woke up, until her close of day.
I’d judged Marie’s experience to be one of endless suffering, which was probably true, only she never expressed it herself. I never heard Marie complain once about her situation. She simply kept adjusting herself to it.
Marie is a member of the World War II generation. This is the generation that simply fell into step with whatever life brought their way. This generation originated the practice of turning lemons into lemonade; they understood that life would not be enhanced nor made easier by indulgent lapses into self-pity. This is the generation that had lived through The War that made them feel that their lives were in peril, by enemies both known and unknown.
A therapist on every corner to help them get through their everyday challenges? That wasn’t even an option. No…The World War II generation did whatever needed doing to get through the day – then they just kept doing it. They were made for the saying “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps”. No complaining. No whining. No time to stop – for anything. Life simply had to be lived, however it presented itself.
That’s what I saw that morning: a woman who was truly engaged in her life, in a way that I, who really have nothing to complain about, never have been.
To have encountered this resolute octogenarian on this morning, expressing gratitude just for the fact that her eyes had opened one more time, was a miraculous example to me of a life truly, humbly lived – in full acceptance for whatever it brought – whether she liked it or not.
Copyright 2012 Sandra Frank. All rights reserved.