Stages, by Herman Hesse
As every flower fades and as all youth
Departs, so life at every stage,
So every virtue, so our grasp of truth,
Blooms in its day and may not last forever.
Since life may summon us at every age
Be ready, heart, for parting, new endeavor,
Be ready bravely and without remorse
To find new light that old ties cannot give.
In all beginnings dwells a magic force
For guarding us and helping us to live.
Serenely let us move to distant places
And let no sentiments of home detain us.
I’ve had another birthday. I’m a day older and another year has passed into history.
Each day I am aware of how much easier everything is if I accept. I want to make this acceptance a part of my life, knowing that this is easier in concept than moment-to-moment.
Last week, while spending time with a dear friend who is sinking more deeply into dementia, I was struck again by the seeming inability of those I love and have loved to relinquish what is familiar for what is coming next; even though the future could be infinitely better with change. It’s like letting go of one step on the ladder in order to get to the next when one feels so safe with a foot and hand well placed.
My friend is frustrated by her personal “prison” and resents being guarded by her well-meaning husband. She rails at the changes in her life that have come unbidden. “This just isn’t what I expected,” she wails.
I deeply understand. And still, it is what is.
My friend is not destitute. She is not abandoned. She is fed and tended with love and affection by a man who is justifiable frustrated, too, but committed.
All suggestions for change are greeted by both her and her husband as on a spectrum from incomprehensible to impossible.
Could you hire a nice young woman whose children are in school, or even an aging neighbor, to take walks with you?
Have you thought about going to a day-center for a little more stimulation? You are a teacher, you might be able to do some good things as well as entertain yourself?
Is it time to move into a retirement center or assisted living while you would still be accepted? There are many facilities that allow you to age-in-place.
What about signing up for one of the many organizations who send volunteers to visit and give respite?
No. No. And, no.
I get it. It’s easy as an onlooker to think of glib solutions. But now, everything seems strange to her. When we drive down the street she is puzzled by the amount of commercial buildings and by the constant stream of cars (all of which have not changed drastically in the last 15 years). When she walks to the corner in her own neighborhood, she can’t remember which way to turn. In such a confusing world, her home feels safe and secure. Her familiar bedroom and living room have become her haven when she is not with someone she recognizes and trusts. She has no capacity for imagining that anything could be better even though she is unhappy with what is.
The entire situation feels familiar to me. Not only do we have other friends who are fading into dementia, we have lived with the aging of our own parents; some who were totally with it, and some, not so much. My husband and I made the conscious decision that we would let the tail wag the dog; we would try to let all of our parents (as much as was possible) choose their own mode of living out their final years.
My husband’s parents moved willingly, if not too successfully into assisted living. Their decision was made too late. They were past any stage of re-socialization. I don’t believe that either one of them ever spoke a word to a dinner companion or remembered the name of a caregiver.
In her eighties, my mother moved to retirement center and bemoaned the fact that she was surrounded by old people. She was dismayed that her children and grandchildren couldn’t be her constant companions. This woman, who had told her story to strangers all of her life, could or would not make a new friend. Her mind was turned to the past rather than the future.
My dad and his wife stayed put. As my father needed more help, his wife fought tooth-and-nail to hold on to his care. With much effort and attention (some of it hired) my father died in his own room in his own home. And with a lot of family help, we were able keep his wife there for many more years. Press here for that sad story.
This has become a long way of asking myself the question…will I know? When to change? When to accept change? Will I make the decision in time?
Will I be accepting? Will I recognize when the quality of my living situation has diminished enough that I must step into the future? Or will I be the proverbial frog placed in the cold water and waiting to stew in my own juices.
I understand what holds us all back. It is leaving the familiar and comfortable for the great unknown. If it is our partner who loses capacity, it is the perfect mix of guilt, love, and compassion that causes us to keep whatever vestiges of life with them is still recognizable.
Well, today I am closer than yesterday, but not yet stepping into the great unknown. And I am grateful. My birthday wish is for openness, for acceptance, for willingness to change when that time comes.
Here is the second verse of Hesse’s poem:
The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us
But lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces.
If we accept a home of our own making,
Familiar habit makes for indolence.
We must prepare for parting and leave-taking
Or else remain the slave of permanence.
Even the hour of our death may send
Us speeding on to fresh and newer spaces,
And life may summon us to newer races.
So be it, heart: bid farewell without end.