Making Peace with Your Own Mortality and Other Lessons
Editor’s Note: This is the third installation of a three-part series called Gchats with Grandma. In this episode, Carly and Mimi discuss how to accept aging with humor, the difference between happiness and contentment, and what real acceptance looks like.
Mimi: Hi! Oops. One second. Neddy needs something.
Carly: No worries. My internet is being unreliable. I may need to relocate.
Mimi: Where would you go? (I’m back, obviously.)
Carly: There’s a tea shop near my house.
Mimi: Where’s your house, exactly, my darling?
Carly: I’m right in the uber-trendy Condesa neighborhood.
Mimi: Well la-dee-da.
Carly: Exactly. Leafy boulevards and sidewalk cafes and second-floor balconies. That kind of thing.
Mimi: Well, why not the best?
Carly: Okay, let’s get right to it. What does it feel like to approach the end of your life?
Mimi: Every once in awhile you feel overwhelmed at the thought of yourself ceasing to exist, because there’s so much you still want to do and see. It becomes easy to get depressed and mope around. But you cannot allow yourself to sink into a depressed state, precisely because there’s still so much you want to see and do.
Carly: How have you been able to conquer those overwhelming feelings?
Mimi: I’ve learned that in life there are a lot of things that you just can’t do anything about. A couple of years ago, when my husband got sick and started on a slow health decline, I became a caregiver. I was very confined in my activities and I became really depressed. But, as with anything else, you have to say, now what can I do about this? And the only answer is: You have to change your mindset.
Carly: But how do you do that, exactly? “Mind over matter” is hard.
Mimi: Well, it helps to have a sense of humor. Even black humor. Like when I realized all the men I ever went to bed with are dead. Except my husband, and he’s in poor health.
Carly: That’s what we call TMI! I’m blushing.
Mimi: But seriously, how? That’s the big question. All the coping strategies sound like one big huge cliche. And you need to employ the cliches. You need to try to analyze your situation, think of the good and the bad. You can get out, your CAN do things. All it takes is a little organization. You can manage to have some fun, see your friends, interact with your wonderful granddaughter, exercise, take care of yourself, work, volunteer, etc.
Carly: I think you’ve done an amazing, inspiring job at staying engaged in new activities and interested in new challenges. I love how you became a painter and learned Spanish both after the age of 70.
Mimi: All my old lady friends are just like me. Only more so. I am a great believer in staying active and trying new things. So I volunteer in my community on the library board and on the Environmental Commission. You can meet all kinds of men at the annual stream cleanup on Earth Day. And they’re all younger than I am. Surprise! But that’s not the goal of the exercise. The Enviro group is not a dating service, believe me.
Carly: It probably could be, for the right two lonely green-thumbed souls.
Mimi: You haven’t seen the characters on this committee. Hard to imagine romance with this lot. SHHHH. Don’t say I said that.
Carly: When you look back on your life, are you satisfied with the experiences you’ve had?
Mimi: Yeah. I’m really glad I went to live overseas for two and a half years. I’m glad I sent myself to school at L’Universita Per Stranieri in Perugia for a summer. I’m glad I’ve been able to do as much travelling as I have.
Carly: So you feel like you’ve lived life to the fullest? Do you have any regrets?
Mimi: The things I’m grateful for WAY outnumber my regrets. I regret slapping Roy Wilson when were playing Spin the Bottle in 5th grade. I had seen that done in the movies. I wanted to say, like a movie star, “You cad!” after he kissed me. But I didn’t know what a cad was.
Carly: I can’t even believe spin-the-bottle was a game back then!
Mimi: I also deeply deeply regret that I was part of a gang of little girl bullies who locked poor little Kathryn Ann Frey in the attic over a friend’s garage and then ran away. K.A. is in her 80s now, if she’s still alive, and I want to apologize to her but don’t have her address or phone or anything. So K.A., if you read this, I’m really, really sorry.
Carly: Neither of those sound like real regrets to me.
Mimi: Nah. The things I am grateful for are without number. I’m so grateful for what some might call my privileged life. I’m glad I was instilled with a love of learning at an early age, even though I was never a scholar. I’m glad my parents taught me values, including compassion. I’m grateful for wonderful you, and thrilled that you’re here for me to love. So many opportunities for gratitude. Remember, my life isn’t over — I’m still able to create memories!
Carly: Isn’t THAT the truth!
Mimi: Be sure to take away all those exclamation points, Ms. Editor.
Carly: When and where were you happiest?
Mimi: I’m very happy doing this with you.
Carly: Well, sheesh, I’m honored. But I refuse to believe you were your happiest in life staring at a screen.
Mimi: I certainly have had some highs in life. And, as you know, the very nature of the word “high” makes it unsustainable. I remember the rush of serotonin or dopamine or whatever the chemical is when I stood on the terrace of art historian Bernard Berenson’s villa on a hill high above Florence and looked down on the red roofs of the city glowing in the setting sun. And the other great thing I will always remember was flying in a helicopter in Hawaii over a live volcano that was vomiting out the contents of the earth’s mantle. It was really orange! Seeing the live lava rushing down the mountain in those lava tunnels where the roof had caved in — that was incredible.
Mimi: I also got a huge rush of emotion when I had my first look at my first baby. You’re just humbled by the miraculousness of it all. I don’t know whether it’s happiness per se, but it sure is strongly emotional. We know all that it’s just chemicals. But then everything is, isn’t it.
Carly: Those kinds of highs are different than sustained happiness, though.
Mimi: There is no such thing as sustained happiness. There is sustained contentment, perhaps. And contentment means coming to terms with lowered expectations. Plus a deliberate decision to be content. BTW, we don’t say “different than.” We say “different from.” Different FROM sustained happiness.
Carly: Grammar-ma strikes again. I saw a philosopher speak at The Strand recently, when I was still living in New York, and he argues that happiness is sustained contentment and acceptance. Joy is those other things, the highs, the surges of emotion.
Mimi: It’s true. One big thing I’ve learned in life is how to deal with reality. You have to cope with what is actually happening, and not with what you wish were happening. I have also learned tolerance for the frailties and imperfections of humanity. Not that tolerance is the same as acceptance, but it’s pretty close.
Carly: I have a BIG problem with not accepting reality. Especially when things don’t turn out how I wanted.
Mimi: When you’re young you think there’s a way to fix everything, if you could just figure it out. As you progress in life, acceptance gradually spreads its wings over action and they form a sort of partnership, flying around together. Then acceptance drops action and flies solo.
Carly: Do you remember when that happened for you?
Mimi: I can’t put an exact date on when I learned my important life lessons. Knowledge kinda creeps up on you like your cellphone bill, except in a less expensive way. We humans seem to be beset by unfortunate conditions beyond our control, mostly in the areas of health, finances or feelings. So we could ask, OK, what would my dog do? (More accessible than Jesus for some of us.) Answer: She would jump up and down and bark to exhaustion and then collapse and take a nap. We can learn a lot from dogs.
Carly: Did having kids help with acceptance?
Mimi: Having a kid will teach you not to be so friggin’ self-centered. You become other-directed, per force. You damn well have to put someone else’s needs before your own.
Carly: I wish there was just a switch I could flip that would allow me to accept myself the way I am, and truly put others first.
Mimi: When we are younger we think we are a) immortal and b) that every bad thing can be fixed. But when you’ve “had a lot of birthdays,” as Ned’s doctor barfingly says (anything to avoid saying “old”), the word “acceptance” gradually nudges out the word “optimism.” And acceptance is one of the hardest things to accept.
Carly: Then how do you ultimately accept it?
Mimi: Many bad, ongoing situations will never go away. So what one learns, instead of a solution or a cure, is to talk of management, which sounds as if you’re doing something. We learn to manage our asthma, ADD, eye disease, partner’s snoring, whatever. “Make the best of it” is a phrase I hate, because it’s basically meaningless. You can, however, learn to deliberately inject some positive thoughts or distractions that truly will make you less gloomy. The brain is like an ATM machine where you can make deposits and withdrawals. There’s a little slot that says “Insert Thought Here.” You can then feel pleased when you have improved your personal account. In other words, make the best of a bad situation if you can’t change it. So you see… I’m a Living Cliche!
Carly: Have you accepted your own mortality?
Mimi: No, of course not. Can you imagine it yourself not existing? I follow the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’ attitude: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage, at the dying of the light.” I’m not really raging, but let’s say I will go kicking and screaming, at least mentally.
Carly: In the words of Uncle Jeff, you’ll outlive us all. So it doesn’t really matter.
Mimi: I’m so tired I can heardly type. See what I mean? I think I’d like to go to bed now.
Carly: On a less morbid note, I love you.
Mimi: And your Living Cliche loves you back. A whole lot. Buenas noches, Carlissima. Besos y abrazos.
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