Letting Go of the Ones We Love
My friend is fighting for his life. He had an emergency surgery that led to an infection that led to a second emergency surgery, then a third, followed by setback after setback. He is now malnourished and his malnourishment is wreaking havoc on his newly frail form. It could kill him.
He lays in his bed, muscle mass melting, his spirit ebbing like the tide. Some days he brings the fight: We walk, he sits in the chair, he accepts visitors, and his eyes sparkle. On other days, he surrenders to the weakness. There is only so much a 90-year-old body can take.
I hold his hand, fill in when his family cannot, and we watch tennis or we sit in silence. I crack bad jokes and show him videos of dogs. I keep things breezy but don’t bullshit. I don’t say “You will get better” or “You’ll be out of here soon” because I do not know if that is true. I remind him he has a lot to live for but I also nod in agreement when he wonders out loud about what his life will look like.
This is losing autonomy after a lifetime of fierce independence.
Yesterday, he told me he was tired of being told to eat. He does not want to hear it from his doctors, his children, or his friends. “I am not an idiot,” he says. “I know what’s happening. I just don’t want to eat.” An untouched tray of lunch labeled with a bright pink “Calorie Count” sticker sits on the table between us.
I listen to his frustration, knowing that it is both an expression of ambivalence about fighting to live, and an attempt to maintain an iota of control over this horrendous situation.
His words remind me of psychologist Erik Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development. The eighth stage is “Old Age: Integrity vs. Despair — Wisdom.” In his book, Personality Theory In A Cultural Context, Mark Kelland writes:
Wisdom allows one to maintain and convey the integrity of one’s lifetime of experience, despite the gradual physical decline of the body. Wise people can pass on an integrated heritage to the next generation. For those who have failed to integrate their life’s experiences, despair arises as the fear of death, death being the time limit on their opportunity to achieve integrity. Wisdom is a detached yet active concern with life in the face of death.
My beloved friend, the neighbor whom I adore, is seeking wisdom.
After his death, Erikson’s wife Joan added a ninth stage to the process called “Very Old Age: Despair vs. Gerotranscendence.” Kelland writes,
People who make it to 90 years old, and beyond, are close to death. Their bodies are steadily deteriorating, most, if not all, of their friends have died, some of their children may have died, their spouse has likely died, and the despair they face is quite real. The despair experienced in the eighth stage involves looking back at one’s life, but in the ninth stage it involves looking squarely at one’s present reality, and passing once again through life’s stages. People who are very old can no longer trust their own capabilities, and they may need to be cared for, thus losing some of their autonomy.
This means losing autonomy after a lifetime of fierce independence. My friend wants to decide if, what, and when he eats because he wants to maintain what little free will he has. Isn’t that what we all want, to determine the course of our own lives as best we can?
So I tell him I understand. He no longer needs his friends and family badgering him about food or offering this, that, and the other thing he might like. He needs us to hold space for him to be where he is, to bring nothing more than copious love and compassion. If he no longer wants to eat, that is a conversation to have with his doctors. He understands the consequences of that choice and it is his right to make it. I tell him that what we all deserve in this life is autonomy, self-determination, love, and respect. Honoring where he is, not where I want him to be, gives him permission to determine the course of his life.
“Thank you,” he says. “Yes. That is all I want, the time and space to figure this out for myself.”
That is all I want, every day of my life.
Love means allowing our friend, partner, child, and parent to be where they are, regardless of how it makes us feel. Never is this as true as it is in the final chapters of a long and glorious life.
We return to our silence. The sound of U.S. Open tennis — the grunts of people fighting to survive another day — fills the space. Then his dinner arrives and he asks me what kind of soup it is. I tell him it’s the usual broth. This time, he asks me for it. I pour it into the mug he finds easier to hold and I hand it to him.
I watch him suck down his first bowl of soup in weeks. And then I watch him reach for a tuna sandwich.
As I turn away to hide my grin, I remember the brilliant words of Langston Hughes: “Folks I’m telling you: Birthing is hard and dying is mean, so get yourself a little loving in between.”
Love means allowing our friend, partner, child, and parent to be where they are, regardless of how it makes us feel.
On my way home from the hospital, I stop at Trader Joe’s to buy some food. As I come upon the small containers of pomegranate seeds, I’m overcome with emotion.
This is my first time in the market since my nest emptied. A week ago, I took my son to college 3,000 miles away. My daughter lives on her own now, too. For close to 20 years, I have been buying those goddamned overpriced pomegranate seeds for my children. What the hell am I supposed to do now?
I choke back tears as I pass the blueberry bars, the brioche loaf, and the Joe-Joe’s. Don’t get me started on what that six-pack of little peach yogurts does to me.
And then it hits me: There’s a blessing in food. There’s a blessing in the choice to eat or not. There’s a blessing in a life well lived and children fed then flown. There are the blessings of friendship, love, and family, and the blessing that is surrender.
Yesterday I loved my friend and my children as best I could, because yesterday I was okay with letting them go.