“I’ve read them for more years than I can remember. And now that I’ll be turning 65 in a couple of weeks – I hate saying that but unfortunately it’s all too true - I keep focusing on how old people are when they die, trying to figure out how much time I have left. I remember when I turned 50. I knew that more than half my life was over. Maybe that’s when I started counting the years. There are lots of people who die in their 80s or even older, but there are people who die in their 70s too. That could mean I have less than ten years to live! That scares me, really scares me. I tell myself I should just stop reading those damn obituaries, but I’m not sure I can.”
“What are you afraid would happen if you stopped?” I ask.
“Nothing. Nothing would happen.”
“I guess it’s like then I wouldn’t know,” she says.
“Wouldn’t know?” I echo.
“Wouldn’t know who died. Or when. Or how old they were. Or what they died of.”
“And that would mean what to you, Marjorie?”
She knits her brow and sighs in exasperation. “I just wouldn’t know,” she says emphatically. “I don’t like not knowing.”
“’I don’t like not knowing.’ That’s an interesting statement. Does not knowing makes you feel powerless, out of control? After all, what we can least know is when and how we’re going to die.”
“Just listening to you say that scared me. It’s like my heart fluttered. I always wanted to know.”
“And if you didn’t?”
“You know the first thing that popped into my head? My mother would die. I know that’s ridiculous, but that’s how I felt as a kid. My mother was sickly, although it wasn’t ever clear what was wrong with her. It was all hush, hush. Don’t upset your mother; don’t bother your mother; be good to your mother. From as early as I can remember I was scared that something would happen to her, that she’d die and it would be my fault. I think she had some kind of neurological disease. By the time I was in high school she was in a wheelchair. She died while I was away at college.”
“So your fears about dying started very early and your not knowing felt dangerous. You didn’t know what was wrong with your mother so you couldn’t protect her.” I suspect Marjorie was also angry with her mother for needing caretaking rather than providing it, but I leave that thought unsaid.
“So you think that’s when my fears about death started?”
“I think that’s when your fears about being out of control started, including your fears about death.” Here again I say nothing about my thought that Marjorie was also fearful of being out of control of her own anger.
“I was thinking about the office next door to you,” she says. “I think it’s a doctor’s office. They’re lots of patients in walkers and wheelchairs, lots of them with aides. I don’t like it.”
I don’t like it either, I think. Recently I too have been dismayed by having the inevitability of the aging process impinge daily on my working space. I’ve also been surprised by my feelings. Both my husband – 21 years my senior - and my mother deteriorated greatly in the last years of their lives. Although it greatly pained me to watch that deterioration, it didn’t affect me in the same way. It felt as though the aging process was about them, not me. But six years have gone by. Although I don’t count the years I have left, I am increasingly aware that I am no longer young. But unlike Marjorie’s experience, my mother lived until almost 99 with a positive, rosy disposition until the end. I may not like the daily reminder, but it isn’t as frightening as it is for my patient.
“I suspect it makes you anxious,” I say.
“Yes it does,” she replies. “But that must be true for everyone.”
“Well,” I say, “No one likes the idea of being old and infirm and helpless, but it carries extra meaning for you. It reminds you of the helplessness of both your mother and yourself. After all, you were the child. You were in need of caretaking too. You didn’t have a mother who could take care of you and that left you feeling all the more alone and scared.”
“And you think that’s why I’m afraid of dying?” Marjorie asks skeptically.
“I think that’s one of the reasons you’re afraid of getting old and of dying. But there’s never just one reason for anything. We have to keep exploring and trying to understand.”