When I was a little girl we would often go to visit some relatives who lived a couple of hours north of us, in a beautiful house filled with beautiful things. We would hear about their latest overseas holiday (a cruise around Alaska perhaps, or a trip to Ascot to the races, or an opera in Italy). One year my Uncle bought my Aunt a new car and it was put in the garage, completely wrapped in Christmas paper, topped with a gigantic bow. These people had bowls of cashew nuts about for visitors - no chips and dip in this house - and a percolator and dishwasher before anyone else we knew. My Aunt wore gorgeous clothes, fabulous shoes and extraordinary jewellery - including a pearl necklace she had purchased in Japan, having watched a diver choose her pearls for her. They were extraordinary hosts, holding parties and dinners for friends and family and having open homes at both their beach house and city dwelling. As a child this life enthralled me and I loved to go and visit and soak up this excitement that was rather foreign to my own normality.
Through it all they were generous and kind relatives and when my Uncle died about 12 years ago at 80, there was much grieving. Last year, despite vociferous complaints and heel digging, my Aunt had to concede to moving to a rest home. The family fortune is largely gone (a long and sad story) and so she now lives in a beach side home for the infirm and elderly. At 96 she remains medication free and incredibly healthy, although her eyesight and hearing are failing and there are times when she is less than lucid. She remembers little from the immediate past (visitors, what was for lunch) but still has a fairly sharp mind - which is a continual frustration to her due to the eye and ear issues.
Yesterday I went to visit her. I was, frankly, quite nervous about it. Rest homes are not the most pleasant of places at the best of times, and so I was bracing myself for what I might find. As I expected, the place had a kind of fading gentility about it at first glance, but was in fact quite shabby on closer look - and home to mainly infirm and largely uncommunicative geriatrics who spend their days shuffling between dining room and lounge with little conversation or activity. The staff are mainly young, and ESL speakers, who are efficient enough but not particularly warm or nurturing.
Fortunately it was a good day for my Aunt and although there were moments when she cried and her ''timeline''was rather muddled, on the whole she seemed quite settled there (actually, perhaps RESIGNED would be a better description...). We reminisced about some of the things I remembered from my childhood visits to her. Like the first time I ever went to a restaurant was with her. The gold lipstick case brought back from Japan, I have used everyday since she gave it to me with my first lipstick at age 13. The beach holidays. The year my mother got horribly sunburned. My children, my job, my house. Her grandchildren, the business she ran with my uncle, their holidays and experiences. She admired my new shoes. Looked closely at my iphone with fascination and had a go taking a photo with it. We laughed and cried.
But the reality of her surroundings were that her tiny single room with barely a treasure or significant memory was a depressing place and I could feel her frustration at being one of the most active and lucid residents with hardly anyone to talk to. This amazing woman was used to bridge, and golf, and cryptic crosswords, and intricate handicrafts. Now she is unable to read, or listen to the radio, and can just manage a walker-assisted shuffle around the garden, and yet remains almost as sharp on the inside as she has ever been. She talked of this, and how hard it is to feel young inside but know that your body is failing. She told me how she wonders if God has forgotten her.
And so when I left, promising to return, and leaving a note in her visitors book outlining my visit and what we had talked about, although I was happy to have seen her and had such a lovely time I also had an overwhelming sense of sadness. I really am not sure that it IS fair that the amazing human body has to go through this. I am not convinced that we should have to live out the last years of our lives without dignity, or in frustration, or simply being miserable. It seems incredibly unfair to me that a life so well lived should have to end this way. And that applies to aging, illness and anything else that leaves our bodies at a disconnect to our minds.
And so that of course led me to one of those ''big questions''. How can it be that abortion is legal but euthanasia is not? That we preserve life at all costs even if the ''liv-er'' doesn't want it. That we end up having to fill soulless old buildings with what become soul-less old people who would (in my view and often their own) be rather happier in heaven.
I think that by the time I am old and decrepit, we will be able to choose our exit place and method. Some would say this is playing God. I'd say it's just making a decision for our soul to meet Him sooner than our bodies might have otherwise allowed.