by Myra Marcus
My son leaned across the table and looked me straight in the eye. We were having Sunday brunch at a trendy Williamsburg (Brooklyn) eatery. “Mom,” he asked, “do you have long-term care insurance?”
“No,” I replied, taken aback. “That’s only for old people.”
“Well,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “it might come in handy someday. A really faraway day, of course, but isn’t it better to start early?”
“I will take it under advisement,” I said, cringing inside. So it has come to this, I thought.
How did this happen? When did I cross the old-person threshold? Do my kids think the mother they used to kiddingly call “Old Yeller” is so old that decrepitude is imminent and she will shortly need long-term care?
When I got home, I scrutinized my face in the mirror, checking for liver spots that may have sprung up while I was eating brunch. OK, my mother died a few months ago, so I’m a little shaky. But she did live until she was 93 years old. That bodes well for me, right?
It doesn’t matter — I am now next in line. I have noticed that I am becoming increasingly aware of the fact that I’m getting older. That I will eventually die.
I have always had a solid case of death anxiety. I was, however, able to self-soothe. I told myself that I was young and that, barring the unforeseen, I still had at least 50 years left to live. Then 40, then 30 . . . it worked until June 20, 2014 when my mother died. In my eyes I became an older person on that day — a veritable senior citizen, a frail elder — all of that and more.
My inner dialogue goes something like this: Will I wake up in the morning, will I see another day? Will my osteoarthritis impair my mobility, or will it simply deliver unrelenting pain? Will I have to drag myself to the ER one night because I think I’m having a heart attack and there’s no one else in the house except a cat?
Then, if I really want to cap it off, I can always picture my mother, in her casket, dead and never coming back.
My world is a very different place now, almost unrecognizable. Reminiscent of a line from an A.E. Houseman poem, “I, alone, and afraid in a world I never made.”
I feel a profound sense of loss and totally off-balance. I am plagued by intrusive thoughts of being hurled through the windshield of my car, of tripping on an uneven sidewalk and breaking a hip. Every hideous crime depicted on the news brings new possibilities into my death repertoire. I feel as if I have no control over my life. I am vulnerable and scared.
Looking back I see that good, bad, or indifferent, my mother was always there. She was a presence. She appeared larger than life. Even as an adult, she permeated my space. She was the original “helicopter parent” — always hovering. Perhaps her greatest role was that of buffer, between the outside world and me. While I grew up with a distorted and irrational view of life, it was all I knew. She was always there. Throughout the years, our relationship was often contentious and replete with screaming, door slamming, phone hang-ups and even the occasional plate toss. We were drama personified. I learned how to set her off so we would both be screaming. I also learned that I had to get hysterical to get any attention from my parents. It was like going on stage. No wonder I wanted to be an actress.
Now it doesn’t matter. She is no longer there.
Growing up, I so often wished her dead, feeling like she drained the life out of me. I was able to read her every facial expression, and was particularly attuned to the “look” of disapproval. It was my “flight” alert, and it meant that I had done something wrong and I needed to run. Sometimes I wasn’t fast enough, and her claws came out, gouging my arm with her nails. This was “our secret” and I kept it.
Trying to reconcile these ambivalent feelings has been difficult. Dialectical behavioral therapy taught me that two strong, conflicting emotions can exist at the same time. There can be resolutions without eliminating the conflict. You just have to choose how they will co-exist. I realize that grieving is a process with a life all its own. It is time-sensitive, and completed only when the person you’ve lost can be internalized within you. You incorporate them and move on — forever changed.
I am not there yet.
The author Anne Karpf says that “age resistance is a futile kind of life resistance.” In other words, denial of aging and death keeps us from living. For me, the finality of life became real when my mother died. I know she is not going to rise up out of her coffin. She is dead. So now it’s my turn — but for what?
Myra Marcus, Ph.D, has a private psychotherapy practice, The Marcus Group, in Greenwich, CT.