Living With Cancer: Feeling Older Than My Age
(ED NOTE: This blog post applies not only to cancer, but aging as well, and is very, very well-written)
September 27, 2013
By SUSAN GUBAR
Sometimes cancer and its treatments make me feel as if I have entered a time machine that accelerates aging.
Several months ago I met a friend for a cup of tea and as we were paying, I caught sight of a stooped old lady across from me: no eyebrows on a pale face framed by thinning hair. A heartbeat later, the mirror image administered a shock. This crone belies my psychic age; that is, the age matching what I feel to be my authentic core identity. The little old lady looked about 85, whereas my psychic age hovers at a somewhat rebellious 16. My companion in the cafe, who copes with lung cancer, counseled me: “Important never to look in the mirror.”
Don’t get me wrong. I have always admired the spunky old ladies who teeter along upper Broadway with the aid of a companion or a walker. But they had a chance, I hope, to ease into their decrepitude gradually, whereas I seem to have jolted into mine in the prime of life. After three abdominal surgeries and three cycles of chemotherapy, a deeply cut gulf separates my little old lady self from the active 63-year-old before diagnosis.
Regardless of chronology, people in cancer treatment, even children, often look like we evolved from an antique race descended from Yoda: balding, shrunken, slow moving, greenish.
My little old lady self cannot bounce out of bed to start the day. Pills have to be doled out first. Instead of quickly throwing on appropriate clothes for the tasks at hand, my little old lady self places a comfortable uniform down on the bed — underwear, leggings, T-shirt, sweater, socks and thick-soled shoes — so she can sit down between the exertion of putting on each garment. The tasks at hand narrow to maintenance — grocery shopping, cooking, bills — instead of the teaching and mentoring and traveling of the past.
Before cancer, I felt the way Oliver Wendell Holmes did: “Old age is 15 years older than I am.”
Now, though, a humbling acknowledgment permeates the atmosphere of little-old-lady-land: a realization that I cannot do what I used to do, a sense of being feeble or vulnerable, physically as well as mentally.
I must sit by the stove, waiting to turn off a boiling pot, or else I will forget and its contents will burn away along with the house. My computer passwords have to be reset repeatedly. Someone needs to drive me since my toes cramp up, making walking or accelerating and breaking perilous.
At various times, I have needed pharmaceutical products that arrived in large boxes. Bandages, bags, adhesives, latex gloves, syringes, surgical tape, gauze pads, antibiotics, salves, mouthwashes, drops, wipes and painkillers pile up in my closet so guests will not see them in the bathroom.
What an alter cocker — the Yiddish phrase for an old, complaining person — I have become.
“There is a difference between getting old and feeling old,” my 17-years-older (non-Yiddish speaking) husband staunchly asserts. Desire stands him in good stead.
“Getting old means knowing you can’t stay up late at a party or run a mile,” he says. “Feeling old means you don’t want to stay up late at a party or run a mile. We’re not in an assisted care unit yet,” he smiles, “or visited weekly by home health care nurses!”
“You got old before you felt old,” I respond, hugging him. “I felt old before I got old.”
Wanting to do what he can’t do oddly cheers him. But as the time machine curiously slows me down while it accelerates my aging, I try to savor doing what I didn’t do when I was an ambitious middle-aged professional.
These days I can sit still and listen—not advise or judge but listen — to my daughters and step-daughters. I’m grateful for the opportunity my grandchildren give me to hang out: a different pleasure with the 13-year-old (we play electronic games), the 7-year-old (he reads aloud to me) and the baby (who grins and gurgles while I hug and sing).
There is another silver lining, even for a psychic adolescent. As I become my husband’s contemporary, we remain soul mates, even though (or maybe because) his psychic age is 11. So occasionally I still get to boss him around.
Or is that notion just one of my teen dreams?