“Getting old isn’t for sissies, that’s for sure!”

I listened to the deep throated chuckle of my friend, a friend that has been like a mother to me for close to fifty years. We speak nightly, the phone closing in on the many miles that keep us separated. “Yeah, but you’re amazing, on your own at ninety, active, sharp as a tack. No memory lapses for you. Hope I do as well.”

I mean it. But hey, why worry? Ninety is a long way down the road, twenty-nine years to be exact. No need to even give it a thought. I wasn’t about to fall into the creeping fear that so many of my friends have fallen into. And their fear is palpable, easily read in the jokes that are emailed daily, jokes about seniors, at the expense of seniors. “This will be us,” they’d add at the top of the forward. “Might as well curl into the fetal position right now, get some practice.”

“This will be us,” they’d add at the top of the forwardIn all honesty, I don’t believe that it’s the fear of illness that casts a dark shadow over the future of people in my age-group. We can deal with illness, even an illness that requires massive doses of chemicals to kill off the rebellious cells within our own bodies. No, it’s the loss of the part of us that gives us our sense of self, it’s the loss of our memories and our dignity that terrorizes our four o’clock mornings.

I’ve tried to convince myself that it won’t happen to me. The fear that hangs over my circle of friends will never be mine. Then I talk with my mother, who at 95 is in an assisted living facility in California, thousands of miles away. The woman who gave me the gift of life has trouble holding onto a thought for 20 minutes. Our nightly phone calls seem to travel in circles, the same question constantly resurfacing, followed by the same answers.

I tell her not to worry about her memory. After all, she has ninety-five years of memories stuffed inside her head. She has to do periodic housecleaning in order to let others in. She always laughs when I tell her this. Then she asks me how my grandchildren are, the question that had just been answered a moment ago. Maybe I call her too often. Maybe I should give her some time to build some different memories. I don’t know. All I know is that I have to call her. I have to hear the same questions and give the same answers, day in, day out.

“My mother died of Alzheimer’s,” my friend told me one day.

“What a frightening thing for her and for everyone involved,” I responded. She nodded. “I took a test that I found on the internet, a test for Alzheimer’s,” she admitted.

“You don’t have Alzheimer’s. Not even close. Don’t give it a thought,” I said. “According to the test, I don’t, yet. But I could get it, a higher chance, heredity and all. And I forget so many things.”

“We all forget. I do, constantly. The other day I went into the kitchen and just stared at the refrigerator. Couldn’t remember what I was after.”

“You were probably after chocolate,” she said, a smile forming at last.

“Not on your life. It’s in the freezer on the porch. Always keep it frozen. Takes longer to eat when it’s frozen.”

It’s easier to talk about chocolateHer tentative smile brightened. My friend understood chocolate, just as I do, just as so many women do. And it’s easier to talk about chocolate than the loss of self.

But it’ll never happen to me. Surely not. Please, G‑d, let me keep my mind, as fragile as it may be. Let me maintain my dignity, my sense of self. After all, I have so much to do. I’m only sixty-one, barely sixty-one. Life is good. I’m active, walk an hour each day, cross-country ski, ride my mountain bike. Don’t even catch cold. My body is so very healthy. But, what if it breaks down? What if my mind breaks down? What if I really do get old, too old to accomplish anything? I’ve got so much to do. Haven’t even begun.”

“Ridiculous,” this voice inside my head barked one night as I sat, staring at the fire, the same worries circling. I was too tired to concentrate and I used the exhaustion as a foreshadowing of my future.

“What kind of a Jew are you? Don’t you glean anything from the Torah portions that you read? Don’t you learn anything?” this voice asked, the voice that belonged to my better half, the one that keeps me in line if I sway too far to the left or right, the one that nags incessantly, reminding me of who I am, reminding me of the saving grace of our Torah, reminding me of our Torah’s relevance in this ever-so-smart world of so-called intellectual superiority.

I sighed, not really wanting to deal with this Jewish conscience of mine, not wanting to imagine the wagging of her finger as she screams inside my head. “I’m tired,” I said. “Haven’t been able to accomplish anything. Just getting old, I guess.”

“Of course you’re tired. Your husband’s cancer. Your son-in-law’s cancer. Your niece’s cancer. Who wouldn’t be tired? You’ve dealt with them all and they all came through their illnesses, have grown through them, in fact. But your exhaustion doesn’t mean that you can’t answer my question. Don’t you read the weekly Torah Portions? Don’t you learn from them?”

“You know I read them,” I whined, ever so silently, not wanting to awaken my husband who slept in the back of our trailer. Not wanting him to know just how crazy I was, talking to myself, in the middle of the night. “I’m getting old,” I complained again. “I’m past my prime, left all the creative years behind me.”

I’m past my prime, left all the creative years behind me“Ridiculous!” my smarter, ever so Jewish self thundered once again. “What does Sarah, our Matriarch, teach you? Can you answer me that, before you nod off into the never, never-land that you‘ve seemed to have consigned yourself to? Tell me, what does she teach you?”

“I don’t know,” I snapped, regressing quickly to the petulant years of childhood. “You’re so smart, you tell me!”

“No, use your brain, think! What did Sarah do at ninety? What happened to her then?”

I stared into the fire, hoping to find an answer within the flames, thinking, perhaps, that it might be some kind of a trick question, convinced that the answer couldn’t be so obvious. “She gave birth,” I finally said.

I could almost see my better-half roll her eyes, wandering, no doubt why she shared a mind with me. “Yes! She gave birth. But that’s not what I’m looking for! Peel away the layers, for heaven’s sake. Be a bit creative, if you dare!”

I shook my head, unable to grasp the correct response.

“The birth of Isaac proved that Sarah was productive! She was creative even into old age! And you can be too, if you’d just stop wallowing in self-pity! Understand?”

Somewhere, deep within my maudlin soul, a light went on, a sense of euphoria filled every part of me. “Yes, that’s true! This is what she taught us! Her future could be mine.”

The revelation sent me into a high, a high that carried me through the rest of the week, brightened my Shabbat and accompanied me to the care facility on Monday, a place where I spend three and a half hours a week, helping out. A place filled with Sarahs, whom to my mind, had not given birth.

"A sad way to end our lives, isn’t it?” a friend whispered as we looked into the dining room. “I don’t want to end up like that. No way do I want that for myself.”

She was well familiar with the path that led to the end of lifeI looked into the eyes of my friend, a retired nurse. She was well familiar with the path that led to the end of life, well familiar with the losses that accompanied that path. Her compassion and understanding were a very deep well, indeed.

“We’ll escape this ending,” I said, wanting to believe my words. But, I wasn’t sure. I could be a Sarah, giving birth to creative ideas and following them to completion or I could be childless, like these residents that I’ve come to love with such an intensity. What if G‑d didn’t give into my demands for the perfect ending for my life? What if He did it His way and what if His way wasn’t my way? I shuddered.

“What arrogance,” my resident nag said that night. “Where do you get off thinking that the people in that care facility, or in any care facility, don’t possess the qualities of Sarah. Where do you get off thinking that they aren’t productive, aren’t teaching, aren’t creative? Just because they don’t measure up to your standards, you think they’re deficient, is that it?”

“Well,” I muttered, looking for a defense, a defense that I knew was non-existent. “It’s just that….”

"It’s just that you have eyes that don’t see, and a heart that doesn‘t understand,” my smarter self snapped. “Tell me about those residents,” she began, her voice softening within my mind, coaxing me to see the truth. “Tell me about Mattie.”

I smiled. “She’s amazing, you know that. Always helping somebody, whether it’s feeding Mike whose tremors are so bad that he can’t bring a fork to his mouth or trying to interpret the muddled words of a resident that had lost the gift of speech. She’s always looking out for someone else within the residence, always trying to help.”


I knew that I had the full attention of my conscience, maybe even her approval. “And there’s Sam. He was living alone when he had his stroke. He lay on the floor for hours, the clock running out for him. He spent months in the hospital but is home now, living on his own, once again, in spite of a body that won’t respond to all of his commands. He’s at the care center every Monday, bringing a smile to the faces of the residents.”

Do you remember how gracious she was, how patient?” “And there’s Judith, filled with dignity and acceptance, Alicia with a love for National Geographic or any book that she can put her hands on, and Jessie with her sense of humor.” The list was endless. “And do you remember Martha of very blessed memory? Do you remember how gracious she was, how patient?”

“And how was her mind?” my better half asked. “Could she hold onto her memories?”

“Well, no, not actually. But she never forgot how to smile. She never lost her patience and she never forgot how to say thank you.”

“Well, what you’re saying is that these people haven’t stopped contributing, that in some way, even if it’s not obvious to brilliant minds like yours, in some ways, these people are serving a purpose, are learning and teaching, some in a very subtle way, but they are contributing.”

“Well, yes of course. And I dare anyone to say otherwise!”

“But you have. Haven’t you said that their lives have no meaning, really? That’s what makes you so fearful of the approaching years? Isn’t it your perception of meaning that is tying your stomach into knots?”

“Did I say that? Did I really think that? How could I be so stupid?”

“Easy enough for you, at times,” my conscience answered. “And, maybe, just maybe, you should think less about what you want and concentrate on doing the best that you can today, leaving the future in G‑d’s hands. Maybe you should trust Him to do what’s best for you, knowing that whatever road He places you on will be the right road, a creative and productive road, no matter where you are, no matter how you serve. You must remember that not everyone is destined to do the big stuff, the headline-grabbing stuff. Most often it’s the little things, piled on top of the other little things that change the world for the better.

It is an honorable future These residents may not be headline grabbers but the gifts that they contribute, whether it’s a smile, a simple thank you, or reaching out to a friend, are the stuff that help to make the world the kind of world that G‑d intended. Don’t minimize their contributions nor fear sharing a future such as theirs. It is an honorable future.”

I had been chastened and for once it didn’t irritate me that I had been found lacking. In fact, I was thankful that a small part of me was able to maintain perspective and realign my thinking. Didn’t happen often. Most times the irritation won out.

But in spite of this understanding of the real truth, in spite of the love and respect that I had for these seniors I still begged for the path that I wanted, a path that could very well be denied. I sighed softly, realizing, at last that the only thing I would be able to count on in the years ahead would be G‑d and my connection to Him. I had to keep this connection going and one sure way of doing so was through prayer.

“Dear G‑d, Master of the Universe, Teacher of all Teachers and G‑d of Sarah, if for any reason doing it my way isn’t the best way then please give me the love of all the Matties, the courage of the Sams, the patience of the Marthas, the interest of the Alicias as well as the acceptance of the Judiths. And may Your will become my will. (Pirkei Avot 2:4) Amen.”