My neighbor is back in the hospital. I saw her Friday and she seemed okay. For her. For where she’s at lately. Thin and weak and overwhelmed by the mountain of infirmities she’s been living under for the past few years, but able to smile; you know, okay.
When I first met her at the dog park, seven or eight years ago, my neighbor was a sprightly 80-year old with a rambunctious border collie mix that loved to eat garbage, sticks, rocks, anything that came into its path. My neighbor would laugh and shrug her shoulders, and tell us how gentle the dog was at home. Even then, she seemed impossibly thin and ageless; the Katharine Hepburn of Horner Park. She volunteered and recommended great restaurants and worked in her yard, cheerfully complaining about how little she seemed to get done. Eighty seemed like an arbitrary number.
But problems started to add up faster than she could recover. Colds into bronchitis into pneumonia and back again. Doctor visits multiplied, and medications, and new complications. “I don’t seem to recover like I used to,” she said a few years ago, when I met her walking in the neighborhood, the dog snuffling in the parkway for garbage. “When I do get better, I seem to have lost a little ground.”
This is an old story. If you live to into your eighties and nothing immediately catastrophic occurs, it just happens. You go from weeding the front parkway in a cute denim hat to trying to do something called interviewing a caregiver when you’re so tired all you want to do is take a nap while they make you a sandwich. You have to learn how to gracefully accept help from friends and neighbors. You’ve always been the one doing little things for people and now you’re the one saying thank you, thank you, thank you. And yes, that’s a good thing, that there are so many people who love you and want to help, but still, when even your personality gets taken over by your infirmities, it’s hard to find yourself.
Do you hold on to who you were? Do you float along and try to be a good patient? Do you give up? The Katharine Hepburn of Horner Park just kept seeming a little surprised. More and more, over the past few years, as she saw parts of her old self slipping away, slowly, the gardening and the dog walks and the concerts. One day she realized she hadn’t chatted with a neighbor over the fence for weeks, or was it months? Because it had at some point become too difficult to stand in the yard. It’s not a big deal, chatting with a neighbor, but when you realize you haven’t done it for months, you also realize that simple act is part of who you are, and that part of you is gone.
When it happens gradually, over a period of years, I wonder if it’s harder or easier to lose pieces of yourself. Maybe it gives you more time to replace them with something else, or to realize the deeper truths of yourself. Maybe it’s a blessing. Or maybe it’s a slow-motion nightmare, like trying to run in a dream. You see the monster coming closer and closer but you just can’t seem to want to move your feet.
We don’t get to choose, so I guess there’s no point in thinking about it. But the Katharine Hepburn of Horner Park gave me her little denim cap, a while ago, when I going on a trip. She said it was the best hat, because it’s so cute and it’s great for either rain or sun. It’s a little too small, but perhaps in time, my head will shrink. That happens, right? Or maybe everyone else keeps growing, full of expanding plans and personalities, and you just stay the same, the nice little old lady who always has a smile.