"You think that it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one. they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else." from Winter Journal by Paul Auster
(his is the translation of a text I wrote in January 2013 in german, it is not a verbal translation, but it is as close as I could get with my english)
A few weeks ago I had to sneeze while getting dressed in the early morning, and suddenly I couldn’t really move anymore without suffering the gravest pain. Something had snapped in my body. Something that felt like an electric shock and it shot into my lower back and sent more and more little electric shocks into my right leg. Walking became a sort of limping, while I basically dragged my right leg behind. I dragged myself down our very long hallway to the bathroom by simultaneously trying to hold on to the walls with both hands. This helped to make the pain almost bearable and stabilized my posture at least a little bit. I felt like I was a hundred years old and somewhat humiliated by life. Every step resulted in inmeasurable pain in my hip and leg and only with a lot of concentration could I keep myself from moaning perpetually.
Becoming old started to appear like a very bad thing, from which I rather should stay away like from smoking and too much drinking. Also my back and aging both appeared to be like my own fault. If I had done everything right, I could delay aging, maybe even completely avoid it, and I for sure could jump down our hallway. I don’t know if I am the only one harbouring this kind of thoughts, ever. But I had the impression, that our society cherishes the ideal of being young, fit, fast and creative. Cool people always look younger then they are. Cool people never lose control, they are always in charge of what happens to them. If you want to be cool, you have to at least look 10 years younger then you are and live exactly the life you want to live. If you don’t, it has to be something wrong with you.
If you are about to push yourself forward step by step, only barely kept in an upright position by the two walls in your hallway, it is pretty obvious, that you are on the wrong side, there wasn’t any room to discuss your options about looking younger or so That I was scheduled at my eyedoctors to get a prescription for varifocals did not exactly help to cheer me up, if you know what I mean.
So I spent the entire Monday in bed. Yes, it was a majorly bad choice to watch the movie Halt auf freier Strecke. Its a German fictional film about a guy who, being only about my age, is diagnosed with a brain tumour and the movie shows his and also his family’s way to deal with this situation. Fairly quick it leads to his becoming a different person first, his personality changed by the tumour pushing on his brain, and then he dies. It is actually a great movie, and very sad of course. It just wasn’t the right movie for a day like this. I could name a thousand better choices for that situation right now. But I had it lying around for weeks. All my friends had recommended it. So I propped myself between 5 hot water bottles into my pillows and watched it, crying the entire time. This was by far the WORST day I have had in ages, I swear. I thougt about ways to stay younger, longer young, whatever, healthy.
I decided I probably had a brain tumor myself, why else would I be practically paralyzed after just sneezing, I mean, come on, give me a break! This had to be some sort of tumour, wherever it was located. And Hello world, I was determined to die with dignity. While I was pondering deep thoughts like this, crying, congratulating myself for my heroism, feeling sorry for myself, I heard a siren under my window, a fire truck, its blue light flashing rhythmically into my room. My first thought was: „Great! Here I am, I have a tumor, maybe in my brain, or in my spine, I can’t move, it is already the worst day I had in centuries, probably in all my former lives, EVER, and somehow there is a logic to our house being on fire right now, so that they have to evacuate me!”
Somebody rang my door bell. I ignored it and stayed in bed. I could not move and I didn’t feel the tiniest bit of inspiration to see a fireman. They could ring at my neighbors, I decided. I wanted to become invisible and hoped, the fire would also ignore me. Then I heard that the firemen were entering my neighbor’s apartment. She is 85, they were yelling her name. I jumped out of bed (funny enough, I didn’t feel my back at all) and opened my door to see, if she needed help. She reminds me of my grandma, who died 16 years ago and I feel somewhat responsible for her. A fireman was standing in her door and I asked: „Is something wrong with her?“ He looked at me, helpless: „She is having a stroke.“
“Should I come over?“ I asked and of course I hoped he would answer something like: “No, of course not! Do you see my uniform? I have everything under control. You look like you have some major problems with your back and you should just rest.”
The fireman instead seemed to be a bit too grateful for my taste and he said: “Oh yes, that would be good.”
Grandma Witting was lying on her bed in her red knitted jacket, her house shoes on. I knew that she was often in her bed, knitting, reading, watching tv, so that wasn’t too unusual. Only the houseshoes were a little bit disturbing. She would never have touched her bed with house shoes, if everything was alright with her. The way she looked at me was also disturbing. It was so wounded and full of astonishment, she looked like a very young girl and she said to me: “Miss Susanne, I believe, I am having a stroke.”
She knew what she was talking about. She never had been a person you could lie to. Her speech was a bit slow, and also the way she looked at me, I mentioned that before, was different, like she was someplace else, a different world, I kneeled beside her and stroked her hand and arm. The ambulance had been sent for. Eight minutes can be very very long, if someone is having a stroke, I tell you that. The fireman went up and down, his heavy boots making a lot of noise on the wooden floors. The apartment door was wide open. Cool air just came in. It was november and Grandma Witting’s apartment was all of a sudden an open space, into which everybody could intrude and watch her having a stroke. It really shocked me to see how unprotected we are in a vulnerable situation like this, surrounded by total helplessness. I thought, that should be different. If you are so dependent on others to help you, to be with you, while you actually might be dying or anyway entering a very new stage of your life, you should be surrounded by people, who are friendly and who know, what they are doing. And your apartment door definitely should be closed. There should be warmth, protection and love.
I still kneeled beside her, I still did not feel my back, and I tell you, you do not want to experience something like this. You don’t even want to see it. We live in a society in which we normally don’t have to see it, everything is clean and fresh. You see people outside as long as they can walk, as long as they do their grocery shopping, then they disappear and nobody looks for them. Sometimes you see people with a walking aid, an old lady, walking very very slowly, obviously with a lot of effort carrying her own grocery bag. You ask her, if she needs help, or not (because you do not want to appear like somebody who might want to steal her purse). You do not know how it feels to have to walk this slowly, how it feels, when everybody is young and strong enough to pass you without noticing you much and you are not sure, if you will really make it back to your door and up your stairs. If you knew it, you would probably offer your help all the time to old ladies with grocery bags, to old men with a walking stick – but then you would not have enough time to do your own things. Those things that have to be done, you know. The life of all healthy and fit people is characterized by a multitude of things, we have to do constantly. They eat up our time. We complain about them. But as long as we are still so important that all those things eat up our precious time, we are far away from death. To have to do things, to have a schedule, is an enormously alive thing.
In short moments, in the in between times, in which we have nothing to do, in which we drink a cup of coffee or sit in the sun, we start thinking, dreaming, and we all want a fast and painless death, in dignity. But I saw Grandma Witting while kneeling beside her and it dawned on me, that most of us will leave step by step, not with a clear and loud drum beat, and off we go. We will be drooling. We will disappear, but only from our neighborhood. We will still be there, in a nursing home, and god help me to even think about what is going on in the kind of nursing homes, I will be able to afford, when I start forgetting things and drooling. But I might even spend a long time in there, ten years or so. I am just not part of society anymore. Nobody asks, where I am, what I think, what I feel. My whole life, in which I really felt, I was an interesting and nice person, with important opinions and rights, will be without much meaning. Nobody will see my brilliant intellect, while giving me some camomile tea with a feeding cup. I will not discuss Sartre with the young guy, who comes in regularly to cut my toe nails and remove my chicken eyes.
Aging has become a somewhat relevant subject for me over the past, say 2 years, noticing little moments, in which I felt closer to somebody like grandma Witting, then to somebody who is 20, who is not even thinking, that this subject of aging could ever touch him. I was like that. I never even thought I would age.
I kneeled beside grandma Witting for about 30 minutes and then they brought her into a hospital. Before she left the apartment, she insisted on putting her keys to the apartment into her bag. I understood they were her token, her promise to return into her life. I returned to my apartment and instantly felt my back again.
The stroke had affected her speech center. When I visited her in the hospital, her thinking seemed to be perfectly clear, but she could not find the right words for what she wanted to say, or understand my words. For example, she would grab her own hair and exclaim: „Those trees drive me crazy.” I understood that she meant to say, that those weeks in the hospital had really turned into a very long, very bad hair day. She had always been a person who tried to look proper, with little clips put into her hair. She knitted all her sweaters and even dresses herself. She was proud of looking like 75, when in fact she was 85.
“I will come back!“ she exclaimed. And I knew she meant it. „I understand everything.“
I am somebody to whom language means a lot. To think, one day I might not be able to use it anymore, still knowing, what I would say or write, if I could, I think, it would drive me crazy. To write every poem in your head only is a very painful vision.
“I am not stupid!” I know that, Grandma Witting. “I will be back! I am a fighter!” And she threw her fist up in the air, when I left.
She actually returned. After seven weeks, she was back in her old apartment. She needed much more support. Her son was coming over every day. And while she was still here, I observed her as closely as possible, her way out of this life. I hardly ever see old or very sick people. They are out of view.
Somehow that day, when I all of a sudden could not move anymore and grandma Witting had her stroke, made me aware of the simple fact, that I will age, that I will die too. I read a very good article about it in the New York Times. Please read, if you are interested in the subject or fear, that you actually might also be one of those people, who will eventually age and/or die.
My grandparents had the privilege to die at home. I think most of us will not. When they were dying, which happened about 10 years apart from each other, both times, we emptied the living room on the ground floor of our house to put a bed in it. My grandfather died in the same room he was born in.
When he died, I was 22. When my grandmother died, I was 32. Even when I was in the room with them, I never had thoughts like: I will also die one day. It just did not occur to me that this had anything to do with me, besides that I was loosing my grandparents. When my grandmother was about to die, she lifted herself up, looked at me and said: “I can not believe this is happening. It is only minutes ago that I went dancing and met your gandfather and now I am here, and everything is over.” I understood than that life was very short indeed, a breath in, a breath out. But I forgot it again. Because I was 32 and I still felt like I had everything in ahead of me. Several lifes of adventures and loves, a million possibilities, a zillion dreams to be fullfilled, everything was possible. Aging has something to do with doors closing. The adventures you might have, get less.
In the end, Grandma Witting did not stay. One day it seemed, she was too tired to try to make herself understood to people, who did not, who could not understand her. In the beginning, we had laughed, when it took us fifteen minutes to figure out, what she wanted us to get her from the grocery shop. But after a few weeks, she grew desperate. It is a lonely life, when you can not talk anymore, not read anymore, not watch television. So she moved into a nursing home, where her son tells me, she is happy, sitting on her balcony. She has accepted, it seems, this new stage of her life in her new home, which will be her last. Doors closing.
This video about a 96 year old former dancer, Maia, shows my ideal. I wanna age like this. „My secret for a long life is simplicity, work and enjoyment.”