Three Teachers: Aging, Illness and Death (written 2008)
In the paper recently I read that aches and pains are not a normal part of aging and this little bit of someone's wisdom took root in my brain where it's a full-fledged weed now. I hurt. All of the time really. Most severely early in the morning. My left side is the worst...shoulder and neck. My back is so stiff I grunt or gasp when I move sometimes. Even after my morning stretch routine and working awhile, I'll bend to pick up something or twist to reach and there it is.
Then leg cramps and foot cramps. When these wake me in the night, the terror is worse than the pain. The helplessness, the immobility, the sneakiness of these muscle spasms frightens me. So is none of this a normal part of aging? I come back to the chronic ailments I battle, the surgical modifications. Searching for a way of understanding. It comes down to learning to live with a sometimes unpredictable illness and all its manifestations.
But what I want to write about is not the illness or the pain, it's the odd tango my thoughts dance...fear of all this, of some really bad news behind some or all of it. I am so easily sucked into fear. My bones are made of collapsible matter and when fear draws a breath I fold and yield.
Fear's partner is disbelief. I cannot really imagine my own death or even a terminal diagnosis. This is a human failing. Despite the reality training of Buddhist meditation, despite the messages of my aging and ill body, despite the tragic news contemporary society feels we all need with our breakfast (though I avoid this when possible), I feel immortal. I know this is not my personal immortality I feel, but the universal one. Life goes on. Still, it feels personal.
If I prayed, it would be to live to see my children settled in happy adult lives. When I wish, this is what I wish for. But it's more than one wish. For my longevity, for their safety and happiness and right choices. For good karma for all. Nothing unusual here. The wishes and hopes of every mother, of every human being, of every being.
They say a coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave man but once. In a reflex of self-defense, I have believed instead that those without fears are also those without imagination. Whatever the case, I find myself here, living through the fears.
I lived much of my healthy, younger life in a slow simmer of anger, resentment and aversion, teeth metaphorically clenched. What I had was objectively fine. But as so many of us do, perhaps more so when we're young, I wanted “different”. And like having a tire caught in a rut, spinning, I could not break free of the mindset that was hurting me. Then snick. I just did. In the midst of middle age and more precarious health, even a more problematic life, I broke free of that particular rut. Meditation teachings. Time. Insight. Some kind of readiness. I turned the wheel the right way or some hand on mine did. And I'm here. I'm seeing the sweetness in the moments. I'm feeling my blessings. I'm able to breathe and mean “if this is all, then this is enough.” The ruts, and ice and suck of mud under my tires disappearing. There is a breeze in my face again, a freshness. A brightness to ordinary days.
Yet fears of this illness are growing roots, giving rise to a new crop of pain, more weeds of aversion. I need to dig deep and work hard. I can do this when I am here and now and not distracted by longing or useless questions. This is my life and it is good. And it is good to know this.