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Lions Roar : September 2010
like her mother? It wasn’t so much that I minded if there was a resemblance, but I did want to look younger than my mother. In fact, whenever I rode in the elevator without her, I had a horror of being mistaken for one of the residents. I was almost sixty- five—officially old enough to live there. I was moved by this group of women—all of them lively and warmhearted, all of them dealing with the ruinations of old age. Betty, the eldest of the group, was in her nineties. The others were in their eighties. Betty was robust and always laughing. a few years before, she and my mother had ridden the trans- siberian railroad together, but after that she had begun to suffer from dizzy spells and had had to give up traveling. one of the guests couldn’t hear a thing, and another, whether she was sit- ting or standing, was bent into the letter C. Jane, who had been my mother’s friend since childhood, had advanced mouth can- cer. she had lost her teeth and had an artificial palate. she didn’t go down to the dining room for dinner because, as she told my mother, she was afraid it would spoil her tablemates’ appetites to see her eating. It even hurt to talk, and her speech was slightly impaired, but she was a woman of remarkable fortitude and she still joined in the conversation. when it turned to the popular topic of visits from adult chil- dren, she remarked wryly, “a son is a son till he gets him a wife, but a daughter’s a daughter the rest of her life.” all these women were widows, including my mother. I couldn’t know how hard it was to become a widow after sharing your life with another person for fifty years. nor could I know what a re- lief it might be, after the last long years of caretaking. when you look at old women from the outside, not identify- ing with them, you don’t think how lonely they might be, or how much patience it takes to get the walker in and out of the eleva- tor. You forget that they didn’t used to be like that, that they used to go canoeing in the minnesota woods or waltz until the wee hours, that they knew another kind of life outside this building. You think they came into the world wrinkled and deaf. I passed the crackers, like a good daughter. I offered wine, red or white, in my mother’s pretty blue mexican glasses. her youth- ful cat, sigo (for significant other: my mother adopted her after my stepfather died), lay on her back and pawed the air, wanting to be played with. my mother held a wire with a fluff ball on the end and dangled it in front of sigo, who hunkered down, mov- ing nothing but the tip of her tail, and then leapt straight up so suddenly that we all laughed. Betty said to me, “I hear you were just on a long Zen medita- tion retreat. did it make you calm?” as a Buddhist, I was slightly exotic there. That afternoon my mother had introduced me to two of her fellow residents in the elevator, where a lot of her social interactions took place. “This is my Buddhist daughter from California!” she had said proudly. They wanted to know all about Buddhism, and whether I be- lieved in reincarnation, but I didn’t really have time to explain between the sixth floor and the first. now I responded to Betty’s question. “You’re not supposed to try to accomplish anything at all, not even calmness,” I said. “The idea is to let go of gaining mind. let go of your attachments.” “well, I can see that I don’t need Zen meditation,” said Betty. “getting old forces you to let go of one damn thing after an- other!” The others laughed in agreement. “I like Zen,” my mother said, “because it says you should be in the present. That’s important in old age. I’m losing interest in my past—it was so long ago! and it’s pointless to think about the future—what future? But the present! There’s plenty going on right now, I tell myself.” I offered more wine but there was only one taker, and I won- dered if they had always practiced such moderation. The conversation moved on to the new cook in the kitchen downstairs and a dangerously creamy mushroom sauce he had used on the chicken. as the women talked and laughed, as they passed around the bowl of crackers with shaky hands, I studied them. I saw how they paid attention to each other. They were ac- complished people: scholars, artists, social workers, poets, raisers of families. now in old age, they were accomplishing friendship, accomplishing community. my mother was only twenty years ahead of me, and at the rate things were going, I would be her age in no time. she was scouting the territory for me, and it behooved me to observe carefully. It was 5:30 p.m.—time, in that establishment, to go down to dinner. after I fetched the two walkers from the corner of the room, the seven mothers of daughters and the one daughter— me—started down the long hall to the elevator. my mother rode in her wheelchair, making it go by walking her feet along the floor in front of her, like a toddler on a riding toy. This was how she liked to do it when she was on her home turf. she said she got her best exercise in her wheelchair. people as- sumed she was in a wheelchair because her legs didn’t work, but it was her back that hurt if she walked more than about fifty paces. sometimes, on a good back day, she walked to the elevator with a cane. her cane had a handle that flipped down sideways and became a tiny seat, allowing her to stop and rest. she ordered those canes from england. If you were looking at her from the front and she was sitting on her cane, it was startling, because you couldn’t see the cane and she appeared to be doing a strenu- ous yoga posture—her knees partly bent, pretending to sit in a chair that wasn’t there. But today was a wheelchair day. our ragtag band moved down the corridor, and I had to make a conscious effort to go slow. Betty, walking beside me, said, “You have such beautiful hair, susan.” my mother looked up at me from her wheelchair and we grinned at each other. ♦ Excerpted from This Is getting old: Zen Thoughts on aging with dignity, by Susan Moon. © 2010 by Susan Moon. Reprinted with permission from Shambhala Publications.