By John P. Weiss
My mother is an 87-year-old Parkinson’s patient. She was in a car accident years ago that caused a neck contracture, so her head is permanently bent to one side. winter
She recently came down with pneumonia and was hospitalized, followed by many weeks in a nursing home. Now she’s back in her assisted living apartment, albeit weakened and frailer. Her mind is mostly intact, with occasional forays into mild dementia.
Mom’s skin easily bruises and tears, and she must constantly guard against bed sores. She requires oxygen now, and we recently began hospice to better manage her care and quality of life.
You would think she’d be depressed and frightened by this challenging stage of life. Surprisingly, she’s not. In fact, she’s often cheerful.
They Left Me In a Big Hole
Mom called me yesterday on her speakerphone. The conversation went something like this:
Mom: “Hello my son, how are you doing?”
Me: “Pretty good, Mom, I just got done walking the dogs. How are you feeling today?”
Mom: “Oh, fine. Are we all set for Christmas? I want to make sure my cards go out.”
Me: “Yep, I’m sending out cards for you, and I took care of the gifts you asked me to get for everyone.”
Mom: “Great. Thanks for dropping off the small Christmas tree, the girls decorated it for me and the cats love it.” (Note: Mom has two stuffed cats in her room. She thinks they’re real.)
Me: “I’m glad. So, what are your plans for today?”
Mom: “Well, some golf on TV. By the way, yesterday, they left me in a big hole. I had to climb out. Haha haha!”
Me: “Um, wow. I’m glad you climbed out.”
Mom: “Okay Johnny, I’ll let you get on with your day. Say hi to the doggies.”
Mom has mentioned the “big hole” more than once. When she was in the hospital and we spoke on the phone, she told me in a hushed voice that she “spent some time in the big hole.” She said it took some effort but was able to climb out.
I think “the hole” is a mental construct for the void. The mystery of what lays beyond our mortal coils, to borrow from Shakespeare. At this twilight in my mother’s life, who knows what visions come to her. Perhaps the old, teetering on the brink of worldly existence, get a peek at the other side?
Before you and I reach that point, looking over the fence into the great abyss, perhaps we should think a bit about how to survive the winter of our lives.
My wife and I have been watching the Netflix original drama “The Crown,” which chronicles the life of Queen Elizabeth II from the 1940s to modern times. (Warning: spoilers ahead).
The seventh episode of The Crown season 3, “Moondust,” portrays Prince Philip facing an existential, mid-life crisis. A man of action, he gave up his naval career after marrying the Queen and lives his life in the Queen’s shadow. Thus, he feels impotent and adrift.
In the episode, Prince Philip meets with a group of priests who assemble at St. George’s House, a sort of spiritual retreat for clergy. Philip rudely tells the assembled priests that they should stop navel-gazing and focus on doing. At one point he calls them “navel-gazing underachievers infecting each other with gaseous doom.”
Later, Philip closely follows coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. At Buckingham Palace, Philip gets to meet his heroes, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. Yet, when Philip probes these “men of action” for deep insights, he finds the astronaut’s answers lacking.
Having found no great insights or meaning in the space race, Philip returns to St. George’s House. He tells the priests about his mother’s death, his lack of faith, and that he’s desperate and lost. He asks the priests for help.
At one point Philip says, “Just like other people hitting that crisis, you resort to all the usual things to try to make yourself feel better. Some of which I can admit in this room and others which I probably shouldn’t.”
In real life, Prince Philip did experience a late-life spiritual awakening and became a life-long friend of Dean Woods, the priest who created St. George House.
To Arrive Where We Started
When we’re young, life is often about action and achievement. We dive into our education, relationships, and careers. There are promotions to attain, accomplishments to achieve, children to raise, and dreams to chase.
Existential questions about life’s purpose, why we’re here, and where we are going, seldom distract youthful minds. But then, in mid-life or later, such thoughts can thrust us into a crisis. Like what happened to Prince Philip.
Some people deal with this by chasing their youth. There is an entire industry of cosmetic surgery to cater to the anguished aging. Some are able to turn the clock back a few years, but time always catches up.
Others immerse themselves in exercise, action, and travel to temper their existential angst. But often, relief is fleeting.
Still, others resort to alcohol, drugs, affairs, and other reckless pursuits, hoping to escape the winter of their lives. But winter arrives none-the-less.
The poet T. S. Eliot offers some guidance with the following line: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
As Mohammad Lavaei wrote on Quora.com, in response to the above T. S. Eliot quote:
“We are seekers by nature and we go forth onto the world, fueled by desire or reason, to search for that missing piece. But at the very last, we realize with a burst of insight that what we were seeking was ourselves, and we always had it with us. Only it was hidden beneath layers upon layers of petty worries and lofty ideas.”
The reason my mother gracefully navigates the winter of her life is that she never lost her childhood grace. That sweet, innocent, fun-loving part of her that is bigger than the indignities of aging.
T.S. Eliot was right. We spend a great deal of time exploring in our lives. The bumps and sharp edges of life may help shape our character and insights, but in the end, we return to ourselves. And know ourselves better.
You Are The Answer
We are all on our own hero’s journey, as the late writer Joseph Campbell so famously outlined in his seminal work, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.”
“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.” — Joseph Campbell
If we are to prepare ourselves for the vicissitudes of aging, and learn how to return to ourselves, the following things can be immensely helpful.
Loved ones: It’s the people we love, and the ones who love us, that enrich our lives. Animals count, too. Giving and receiving love creates a kind of armor. As a result, we are shielded from the slings and arrows of old age. Love sustains us. Gives us strength.
Mindfulness: When we’re young, we tend to fixate on the future. When we’re old, we ruminate about the past. Meanwhile, we miss out on what’s happening right now. Take time to experience the now. Slow down. Savor your coffee. Listen more deeply. Stillness is where we find the kingdom of God.
Exploration: The winter of your life doesn’t have to be lonely and scary. There is so much to learn, see, hear, taste, feel, and experience. Try a new hobby. Explore a new genre of books. Take an online course. Intellectual exploration and creative pursuits can open your mind and bring back the passion.
Negative self talk: It’s tempting to complain. We all end up experiencing health challenges and the slow march of physical deterioration. But telling everyone else about it only amplifies your misery. Focus on the positive, and gratitude for the good things in your life.
Faith: Finding something bigger than yourself is a powerful antidote for egocentrism. It forces you to consider the larger picture and develop virtue in your life.
There are many faith traditions, but all tend to be rivers that lead to the same ocean of salvation. Others find solace and reassurance in science, and man’s ongoing quest for meaning.
Strong In The Broken Places
None of us get to escape the march of time. We will age, and life will bring its joys and sorrows. Pursue as many experiences as you can in life. Travel, meet new people, read many books, and experience new cultures. These things will create memories to sustain you in the winter of your life.
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” — Ernest Hemingway
The “big hole” my mother alluded to awaits all of us. It haunted Prince Philip until he found help to dig himself out. In the end, as T. S. Eliot noted, we will “arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
If you want to know yourself better in the twilight of life, cling to loved ones. Practice mindfulness. Explore, avoid negative self-talk, and find some form of faith or greater meaning outside yourself. This is how you will remain strong in the broken places, return to yourself, and become the hero of your own journey.
John P. Weiss is a retired Scotts Valley police chief who draws cartoons, paints and writes about life. See johnpweiss.com.