When I meet friends around my own age, particularly those I haven’t seen in a while, we have different versions of the same conversation. “How’s your Mom doing?” one will ask me. If there’s no crisis, I’ll answer with: “She’s hanging in there, though her short-term memory is still shaky.” Then I’ll inquire about their Mom or Dad, depending on their particular circumstances.
One evening recently I met an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in several months. He asked about my mother, and then said, “We’re all somewhere in this, either immersed in it, having gone through it, or facing it down the road.” ‘It’ is the process of dealing with an aging parent, of tracking their decline and eventual death, and its inevitable reminder of ‘what comes next’ for us. After we lose our parents, there is no barrier, no shield between us and a view of our own mortality.
Middle age seems to be about making accommodations with the changes in our bodies, the loss of the bloom of youth, the possibility (on a physical if not a mental and spiritual level) that we could get better, stronger, hotter each year, if only we spent more time at the gym. Beyond making peace, or coming to a grudging acceptance of those changes—in my case, ‘peace’ is more like an uneasy cease fire, like the DMZ that runs across Korea—we watch our elders, friends and family members who’ve been permanent fixtures in our lives —weaken and drift away. Often, we face a strange role reversal; now my friends and I talk about our mothers, how they don’t listen to us in their 80s, how they’re too set in their ways.
I think of other elders, beyond my parents, who paved the way, enabling me to get to where I am now—a fifty-something man with a pretty good life, a writer, a person who is more happy than sad. (Something I could not have said until I hit my mid-40s). About two years after I moved to Boston, in the late 1980s, I met a woman with the mystical name of Deborah Rose. Deborah was an acupuncturist in Somerville, and though I was skeptical of using needles as a source of physical healing, I was anxious and depressed enough to give her strange methods a try. After my first session, in which I felt my energy shift significantly so that I almost floated out of her office, I was convinced that Debra was a skilled healer.
Over the course of the next 17 years, Debra guided me through various dramas and traumas, including my 40th birthday, (at one point crying on her table, convinced I was a total loser destined to be single and unloved), several jobs where I crashed and burned, and various bad dates and relationship meltdowns. In the spring of 2006, she calmed me down when I faced (minor) surgery for a superficial—but initially terrifying case of melanoma. Debra was single like me, and though I knew less about her life than she knew about mine —I treated our sessions as a form of therapy—she listened and responded with a heart the size of Texas, sharing some of her own stories about making peace with being single, and with living a life ‘outside the box’. Though I knew Debra was about 10 years older than me, she seemed ageless, both experienced and a bit dinged up by life, and youthful, excited to see what life might bring her next.
A few weeks after my cancer scare, I had a follow up appointment at Debra’s, when she told me that her breast cancer had returned, five years after her original battle with the disease. This was in May; four months later she was dead.
I think of how time passes, and how people pass in and out of my life. Though I’ve made new friends and even found another healer who offers me some wisdom and advice, I’ve discovered that long-term friends and relatives are not spare parts; they cannot be replaced. I think of my godmother Doris—who made it to 90, still “in her right mind,” who passed the year before Debra. I think of my uncle, who died in 1975, and my father who died in 1988, and marvel how I still miss them —how both their presence and their absence feels so fresh.
In my 30s and 40s, Doris and Debra helped keep me tethered to the ground, giving me a sort of unconditional love and acceptance I rarely offered to myself. Today, I have only my mother, and the history of our complicated relationship, the remaining elder. Or maybe, though I don’t have the others with me in ‘real time,’ I still carry them. Sometimes I can almost hear them, whispering, as my life unspools like thread, too fast, too soon.
Postscript: Judah Leblang is a writer and storyteller based in Boston. The 2nd edition of his memoir, “Finding My Place” is available at lakeeffectpress.com and on Amazon. For samples of Judah’s work visit www.judahleblang.com