There is often a romanticising of aging in the thought of all returning to dust or that in the end, we are as we come. Less heard and spoken of, is the story of ailing.
This, though, is not to conflate aging with ailing. This rumination of sorts, in the words that follow, is not to say that ailing is inevitable, but that we will not always be as we once were.
And they, will not always be as they always were.
Papa said, “I will not always be around”.
I live in an old neighbourhood. This neighbourhood is aging and its people ailing.
I remember the spritely walk of neighbours and the way I would tilt my head as a child to look up at them. These days, I would hold the lifts doors for them, walk behind them as they amble along, as their freedom of steps become beholden to the walking stick or the wheelchair.
Some days, I forget that my parents are children of parents too. And that every day, they too are learning new ways, new forms, new circumstances. Like bearing the stress of paying the bills, educating the rebellious adolescent, or being the caregiver to an ailing parent, and so much more I could not possibly yet come to fathom. My parents are living each day as parents and as children, newly and freshly. Learning about which hospitals reside certain specialists, learning about insurance and subsidies, learning about step-down care.
Some day, these, I will have to learn too.
Papa said, “You have to learn to do this, yourself.” How to fix the lights, how to clean the pipes, how to pick the good fruits. And this, and that.
In the aged and aging, I see not them, but the images of themselves from the stories they tell or the memories I bear. Often of struggles – the length of time and experiences showing in their silver hair, the histories in the folds of wrinkles on their skin. Soon, these voices will be buried.
And with them, the neighbourhood changes in its sounds and textures. The mom-and-pop store, with its rusted metal grilles and its mess of plastic pails, paint cans, and brooms, grew quieter, before being replaced by the seven-eleven with its rowdy crowd of secondary school students jostling for a snack after class. The cassette tape shop, that blared obscure soundtracks of foreign dialect movies soon shuttered and in its place stands a tuition centre with its fully frosted glass and closed door. The barber shop whose owner was always admiring her garden of plants outside her store, became the bubble tea store whose only face were its part-timers that always changed.
Aging is seldom a solitary affair.
Papa said, “Next time, when I’m not here…”
Notwithstanding: the truth, is. We will not always be as we once were.
I hear it when my parents are withholding that pant from climbing a flight of steps, and I know the drag in their steps from walking a distance too long. And the pills, for the heart, for the kidney, for the blood.
Though, if I may believe for a moment that, aging is perhaps less about being fragile – which suggests a propensity to being broken and lost – and more about being delicate. Like the floret of the dandelion, of resistance but also a willingness to go with the breaths of the wind. And in being taken by the wind, it is of elegance and dignity in its flight.
The body is perhaps but a physical. The agility in movement and the freedom of steps in the body is a layer we shed with the years. Shed, too, is the body as a bag of bruises from falls and missteps in the journeying through life. Hence, it is not all a loss as it is renewal. The swiftness of the mind and the depth of the soul withstands the transience of the body – the physical. Like the way branches and roots grow with the wind and the cold, even as the leaves turn with the seasons.
I don’t expect myself to understand aging, as though it were a matrix with a fixed combination.
In the same way my parents are learning new skins and shedding old ones, in the sense of roles and responsibilities, all I could do is learn and shed as they do with their wisdom.
And in their own aging, all I could do is to remember the texture of each shedding, the moment of each renewal, and their fight in and for life.
It is also for me to figure myself, to shed and renew. And, even if I’m never ready, to find my own fight.
To understand nothing is perhaps, only, quite, natural.
All images by Jesslene Lee.
About the Author
Mad for adventure and stories, Jesslene often walks down unmarked streets and talks up wild strangers. Leading quite a monochromatic, unplugged life, she also loves wandering about.