I spent most of last week staying in my very own suite at a Gracious Living retirement center in Missouri. The blustery January weather and my mother’s limited mobility kept us indoors, relying on the elevator, which was the only way to access her apartment from the rest of the building.
When I first arrived, I skidded into the place with a screeching Wile E. Coyote stop. Next I had to figure out that my mindfulness practice didn’t include taking on the halls as if I were in a video game with the goal of dodging walkers and wheel chairs.
Once I had adjusted it was quite wonderful, sort of like walking underwater. As my pace slowed down, so did my thinking.
I sat at the table with a group of women ranging in age from eighty to the mid-nineties, listening to them talk about what it’s like to give up … again and again … those things that used to define them. When I was younger, I used to rhapsodize about the grace of aging, determined to manage it with all the considerable skills I was collecting.
But listening to them, I saw again how clueless youth is about such things. I heard in these women such an acceptance of the inevitability of loss. Not just the loss of loved ones. The loss of independence, of control. Again and again. Now this. This is the ultimate gaming challenge, I thought. Except it’s right-in-your-face real. No way to anticipate how or when it will come, but knowing that come it will. These women each had such grace, such deep acceptance about her own particular way of falling apart.
They became my heroes: they’re brave and funny; they laughed at their “pitiful” physicality. They laughed during trivia games; they laughed at all the funny stories they had gathered from their lives. They’re generally a fine audience for life, as it parades through their shared home.
But the real fun came on Ball Day, a TGIF activity. We sat in a circle and batted a big, soft ball, randomly moving it to the ceiling, to the side, and trying to anticipate when it would come our way. Not all of us could kick, but some of us could nudge with our elbows. And we could all laugh. Which we did.
All of us were carried along by a well-oiled machine focused on our Gracious Retirement. Except the pesky elevator. It may have been oiled, but that apparently wasn’t enough for a smooth operation. One evening I discovered first-hand that rumors of its breakdowns were NOT exaggerated. I’ve never been particularly skittish about tight spaces. But there’s nothing quite like realizing that the scary scenes in suspense films can actually happen.
Once we had pressed the alarm button, which was ringing in our ears, there was nothing to do but wait … and watch random images from those movies fly by. I imagined running out of oxygen. A large hand tried to hold open the door. I imagined the worst.
Then I thought of my new heroes. I thought of the story I would tell the next day. How they would laugh. I thought of those sweet, lined, faces, listening for the punch line as I retold the story. I chose that movie over the horror flick.
Fifteen minutes later, I was walking the stairs. The next day the elevator was fixed. All the walkers and wheel chairs had confused the sensors on the machine. But luckily I’m a human. Living the life of gracious retirement for a week had reset mine.