Family Matters

Just This, Nothing Next

Facing Old Age with Trepidation and Grace

Magazine Issue
September/October 2023
ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM NIKLEWICZ

>I am of the nature to grow old.

I am of the nature to get sick.

I am of the nature to die.

I am of the nature to lose everything I have ever loved.

I am nothing more than the product of my actions: those taken and those I will take.

For decades, I’d earnestly remind myself of the five remembrances, a core teaching of the Buddha from 2,500 years ago, as part of my daily meditation. They were easy to say and oddly refreshing, like a cold slap of water to the face in the morning. It put each day in perspective. I imagined that it would prepare me for the future.

It didn’t.

Despite having watched our parents, older siblings, clients, and friends go through it, getting old is often a surprise to those of us who thought we understood the vicissitudes of aging. It’s a shock, actually, to be experiencing the five remembrances in action as I grow old, get sick, and prepare to die. It feels like living in another country, one with a distinctly different culture and climate.

Here, you always wonder if this new set of aches, pains, and memory lapses are normal or signs of a serious medical problem. The most common items on your calendar are doctor visits. A frequent social event is yet another heartbreaking memorial service for a friend or family member. Putting on shoes is an adventure, and putting on stockings an impossibility. Favorite activities like hiking, sports, and traveling become too risky. You regularly feel like you can’t possibly be as old as it says you are on your driver’s license, and then the thought comes: They’ll probably take away my license soon.

I remember a client saying that when he’d lather himself up for his morning shave, he’d look at the old guy in the mirror and say, “I don’t know who the hell you are, but I guess I’ll shave you anyway.”

In this country, you’ve made the inexorable shift from looking forward to the future to living in its shadow. Often, it feels like a gut punch—and still, you’re surprised by it.

June 8, 2022

I’m sitting on my porch this morning quietly celebrating my 77th birthday with a delicious cup of coffee. The meadows and the woods beyond are enshrouded in fog.

In 2005, when I turned 60, the doctors gave me less than a 20 percent chance of surviving my stage-4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, so it feels like a miracle that I’m here—a decade and a half later.

A decade from now, I’ll be 87. Seriously old. But wait, given my dreadful health history, the likelihood of my living another decade is slim. Slimmer perhaps than even my odds of surviving cancer had been.

All my life, I’ve thought with great anticipation of the possibilities the next decade holds: books to write, sailing adventures to go on, unseen parts of the world to explore, new ways of trying to make a difference for my clients.

Looking back now, it feels as though I’ve rushed through those decades like a river crashing into boulders, throwing up spray. But despite all my Buddhist practice, even as I slow down, it’s still hard for me to be fully present in the moment, and the moments are running out.

I’m not ready for the end. I’m scared, and I’m deeply sad. Kate, my wife of the last 55 years, will be left alone. I probably won’t get to see my grandson’s high-school graduation. My yet-to-be-born grandchildren will only know me as a decrepit person, if at all.

The next swig of coffee tastes bitter. We all know we live on borrowed time, but sometimes the knowing cuts like a blade.

I pause.

I remind myself to take a deep breath.

If mindfulness is such a powerful antidote to life’s challenges, why is it so difficult? Perhaps because this being-present-in-the-moment thing often doesn’t feel very good. At least, when I’m racing through life, I don’t have to fully experience my painful feelings, which this morning seem to be a mix of sadness, regret, anxiety, and anticipatory grief.

“Just this, nothing next,” my Buddhist teacher always says as we sit on our cushions.

Even though my heart is aching, I feel intensely alive and present as I put down my mug. I guess the only thing to do about having less time on this planet is to be more fully present with whatever time you have left—breath by breath, until the last one arrives.

The sun is burning off the fog. I take another sip of coffee. It’s lukewarm now. I pause again and consider this moment, which is here/gone in the blink of an eye. This moment is all we actually ever have.

It’s a miracle.

January 21, 2023

Eight months ago, when I wrote the above reflection, it felt good to seem so wise and clear about this last chapter of my life.

Then the shit hit the fan.

Kate was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Suddenly, the shortness of time wasn’t an abstract musing on my porch over a cup of coffee: it was about losing Kate in the not-too-distant future, in a really dreadful way.

A lot of people don’t know how awful Parkinson’s can be—but Kate knows all too well. As a family physician for over 40 years, she’s seen its terrible progression firsthand, what gruesome endings it begets, and what this means for patients’ families. She knows, and now so do I, that the effectiveness of medicines and other interventions diminish over time. And for many with Parkinson’s, your ability to move your body begins to deteriorate until, like the Tin Man in The Wizard of OZ, you can’t move at all. This isn’t just physical: you become cognitively impaired and lose your ability to communicate, too. In the end, you’re locked into a kind of frozen, stiff silence—a solitary confinement—needing 24-hour care until you receive the mercy of your own death.

There’s no way to paint this picture in hopeful colors. Denial is no longer an option.

Kate lost her beloved father to an aortic aneurism when she was 15, and she’s been afraid of losing me for our entire marriage. We’d always assumed I’d be the first to go, but now it appears that may not be the case, and she’s being forced to wrestle with the idea of her own death. Having lost her childhood faith of going to heaven to reunite with her dad, she’s haunted by the idea of simply “not being” anymore. Even though she’s aware that the final stages may be years away, the idea of a living death, in which she’s trapped inside a rapidly debilitating body, is even more terrifying.

The blithe wisdom of the last journal entry about my own limited time on earth seems foolish now. Kate and I are overwhelmed by our tears, fears, and helpless impulse to shake our fists at the implacable universe. Day in and day out, we feel the depth and desperation of Dylan Thomas’s exhortation, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Do not go gentle into that good night.”

We’ve been together, through thick and thin, since college. Now, here we are, at the beginning of what might be the hardest chapter yet.

Right now, we’re holding tight to the belief that we’ll find a way to move though the time we have left with each other with love and tenderness. We’ll take turns holding each other. We’ll do our best to go gently into this good night with gratitude and grace.

April 25, 2023

Three weeks ago, I hit a near perfect golf shot and my eye filled with blood. This was my fourth eye bleed, and it meant I had to undergo major eye surgery the following week. Now, I’m in for a slow recovery, with no certainty about how much vision will come back.

This idea of getting old, sick, and dying with some equanimity is bullshit. I’ve been completely failing to go “gently” into anything but my next self-indulgence, which lately has included eating like a pig, drinking like a fish, and watching porn like a teenager, an activity Kate thinks is pretty undignified for an old man. I agree with her assessment, but have been unwilling to budge from my seat on the pity pot.

Then, yesterday, I poured my last glass of wine into the sink and gave Kate my oversized bowl of ice cream. I don’t know why. I just did.

Today, I’m writing this knowing I won’t drink alcohol, eat poorly, or watch porn. I can only know this for today, but I feel better, nonetheless. I feel like myself—for now.

I’m reminded that back when I was expected to die from my cancer, I thought it’d be a good idea to visit with a Buddhist teacher who was dealing with a terminal cancer. She had a luminescent smile.

“Well, David, my cancer has been dreadful, but when I sit with the breath and just being-ness, my raging storm of fear and pain and grief settle down. Sometimes my tears come. Sometimes I smile.”

I was deeply moved, even inspired.

Then she added, “That’s on a good day. On a bad one, I can’t even get to my cushion to make myself meditate, because who gives a rat’s ass? I’m just an old lady living alone and dying. On those days, I watch junk TV and eat chocolate. Sometimes I spend hours staring out the window. That’s the best I can do. Don’t waste your time always trying to make each minute count. Sometimes you can, and sometimes you can’t.”

Remembering her rueful wisdom helps. Today I’ll just try to take care of myself like a grown up.

June 8, 2023

I can’t believe a year has gone by. I’m 78. This morning I made a point of repeating my new birthday ritual of greeting the day by sitting on the porch at dawn with a cup of coffee.

First, I reflect on a bit of good news. Kate’s responding well to her medication, and last week the neurologist felt confident enough to say we might have five to 10 years of keeping the disease at bay before things go downhill. That’s more than we expected, so we’re daring to be hopeful that we’ll use this gift of time well.

Also, I was able to get off my pity pot—not because of strength of character, but because my eyesight is finally improving. So what’s my takeaway from this challenging year? It’s pretty simple: no matter what’s happening, there are good days and bad days; and at this age, the bad days can be really bad. And more frequent.

If a time comes when the bad days significantly outweigh the good days, might that warrant ending one’s life? For decades, I’ve cavalierly spoken about the possibility of “checking out early,” liking the idea of picking my own ending, rather than being flogged along by modern medicine or indefinitely stuck in a home for the demented. Kate and I have plans for assisted suicide should either of us become ready for that, but what if we wait too long and we’re not capable of making that judgment?

Suddenly, I feel very sad. I reach for my coffee and look out at the abundance of flowers in our garden, the lush meadow, the forest, and the rolling hills and mountains beyond that. It’s beautiful.

How many birthday mornings like this do I have left? How many breaths?

Then suddenly I remember that I’ve already been given 18 years of breaths since I was expected to die in 2005. Tears come streaming down my face at this thought. I’m surprised by the powerful feeling of gratitude flooding me, and once again, for the simplicity of “just this, nothing next.”

 

ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM NIKLEWICZ

David Treadway

David Treadway, PhD, is a therapist and trainer of 40 years.  His latest book is Treating Couples Well: A Practical Guide to Collaborative Couple Therapy. He’s also the author of Home Before Dark: A Family Portrait of Cancer and three other books.