Such a difficult subject. Such a mental effort of getting it out of the blurr one imposes on it, in order not to position oneself properly towards the death… thingy. And sometimes so painfully present.
We have been last week to this family day that my mother-in-law’s family holds every year, insofar that is feasible. The youngest present this year was 20 months, the oldest was 89 years old. They had, all but the hosts, traveled for something between 100 and 350 km to be together. To make sure they have seen one another this year. To see the children grow and to exchange stories. This year, illness stories. But nonetheless, it was a beautiful thing – this thing to which my generation in the family had felt for years that they were compelled to take part in and be bored, and in which they had now become the central actors; this day in which the teenagers I first met were now adults finding their way, and in which the grown-ups of 8 years ago have started retiring; this thing full of personal drama, of togetherness and separation, of strangers and closeness… it was mine as well.
Yet when I tried to describe it, the one thing that kept coming back like a chorus was: `it’s because people grow old in a nicer way in this country than in ours`. And of course it doesn’t apply to everybody, but, of the people I met in the Netherlands, it is true. It’s not that they groom themselves more, that their houses are updated more frequently, that they eat better… maybe not even that they exercise, because that will certainly no longer be true of the 89-year old uncles and aunts who do their best to keep their components together long enough to have a decent conversation. It’s not the clothes, it’s not the humid weather that might just pickle people. It’s inside, somewhere deep, and even for those of them who have lived through the war, it seems to come from a certain form of peace with the world. It always struck me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it, and then…
This year, it was about being sick. The daughter of one of the cousins has leukemia. She has been on treatment for almost two years now and, at the end of the two years, she has a chance of 85 to 90% to be cured. They live in hope, but also in this purgatorium of chemo and plastic tubes coming out of a 4-year old, in a constant negotiation between raising a child with the boundaries that a child needs and taking into account the effects that medicine has on her. The story was heart-wrenching. I thought I was going to burst into tears in the middle of the garden. But the attitude, the faith, the matter-of factness, the simplicity of the one-day-at-a-time with which her father was telling us all this, purging himself of the story, was so revealing of a certain way of dealing with things. Practically, non-fatalistically.
On the other side of the table, an uncle in his late fifties has learned that he has cancer and that it’s inoperable. He tells us the story of the doctors, the opinions, the hospitals which would or would not operate, the insurance, his surprisingly good tolerance of the chemo… little to nothing about the angst, but still, this conversation had been unthinkable to me the day before. Of course that we would never have been able to talk about the weather and pretend we didn’t know, but, to my mind, in Romania we would have done our bloody best.
At the elders table, the conversations would mostly be about minimal comfort and pain management. But the serenity of the voices… unbelievable. Again, one day at a time, we’re going to find something pleasant to do, we are going to see someone to get the discomfort of getting this old managed to a level where we can enjoy the sun on the terrace, the concert series that we received for Christmas… They sounded like my favourite aunt in the whole world (Romanian, this time) manages to sound. Like life was worth enjoying and living to the last minute, squeezed to the last drop.
And then I turned around and thought of all these things I used to think/fear/believe when I was younger, of the `Do people know one day, when they look in the mirror, that they have been young until yesterday and that now they are old?` puzzle that I used to wonder about. And it dawned to me that there might be something fundamentally wrong with how I myself look at being old, perhaps through the magnifying glas of my culture of skinny girls with shiny hair who mysteriously turn into asexual beings with short permed hair at random married ages, giving up on the right to be people in the full sense and settling for a sort of self-victimization. I’m simplifying a complex story on this side, I know… and there is so much to factor in… I’m only just beginning to understand a clot of attitudes towards oneself, others and death that can be so determined culturally. Bear with me.