On a bench outside, I open the plastic containers one-by-one and hand them to my father. We watch the residents filter in and out of the main building, supported by four-footed canes and wheeled walkers.
“This must not be easy for you,” he says to me.
“I guess,” I say. “Is it easy for you?”
“All I have to do is get dragged around for a few days.”
I mumble something resembling an agreement and discover that I’m having trouble meeting his eyes.
“I remember when this happened to my dad,” he continues. “He was diagnosed with mesothelioma from his years at DuPont—this was before you were born. I remember those first real changes in him, when he wasn’t quite my father anymore. The hardest part wasn’t seeing him change. It was knowing he knew I saw it. That really broke my heart.”
I excuse myself from the bench, explaining that I need a bathroom.
Locked in a handicapped stall with an emergency pull by the toilet paper, I sit on my heels and cry. The bathroom is empty and so I really go for it: wailing, shaking, snot streaming from my nose. The minutes wash out in long blurry streaks. Pressure fills my chest like sinking to the bottom of a pool. The light goes flickering and dim.
When I return, my mother and father are debating whether the Toyota will break two hundred thousand miles on our way back. Neither of them mentions the redness ringing my eyes, but my father squeezes my shoulder as I help him into the car.
The remarkable character of aging is the way it draws each of us towards the same inevitability, the same anonymity, the same identical end.
Part of what makes the truth of aging so unnerving is its scale. It’s the elephant to all of our blind men. .......
But after a while I start to think that scale alone isn’t the problem. It’s that the scale robs us of our individual agency. The remarkable character of aging is the way it draws each of us towards the same inevitability, the same anonymity, the same identical end. Everyone on the planet will experience it in one form or another, as one of the few rituals we share across our species. Except as tiny people with worries and chores, obligations and hopes, we are painfully ill-equipped to reconcile the distance between the personal and the universal. We perceive our own outline in the facts and empirical evidence, and imagine that we can make things different for our parents or ourselves.
Mostly we are wrong. Incontrovertibly and terrifyingly wrong. So we scramble to control whatever we can, in whatever infinitesimally small measure is possible.
The last place you ever live is not really a place. It’s a compromise. It’s a wheelchair or a cane, an argument, a difficult decision, a humiliation to be ignored. It’s a cleaving to the parts that were, and a progressive resignation to the parts that are no longer. It’s the temporary safety of particulars—will the new house be big enough, the food fresh enough, the other residents friendly enough? It’s a father seeing himself through his son’s eyes, or a wife trading hope for common sense. I’m sure it’s millions of other things too, depending on whom you ask. We are sons and daughters, after all, and susceptible by default to the terms of cliché.
If I only get to pick one, I guess it would be something resembling a simple question, probably the same one my parents are asking themselves right now.
How can I possibly make this my own?
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