Off North Road : The gifts of giving up
I was grousing to my wife Mary Ann (only a bit) and I knew I was making too much of a small problem; it was only another bite lost of my personal independence. I had gone one morning this week for my first-ever manicure. Actually, the cheerful and efficient young woman sitting on the other side of her small table spread with a clean towel, corrected me; "It's not actually a full manicure. That would include trimming the cuticles and a hand massage; it's very relaxing; you're having a nail cutting." And snip, snip, file, file, she continued at my outstretched fingers.
I felt obliged to explain my presence and justify this radical giving up of a personal chore I had always felt rather good about doing myself. I went on to explain that my central vision had recently fallen off and my depth perception was shot. The last few times I had clipped my own nails I made a botch of it. Nails were snagged and longer than I'd ever seen them before. I had developed the vision that I now appeared like a street person who slept up against a sidewalk grate for several weeks.
I felt foolish sitting there with the nail cutter. A mirror hung a few feet away on the wall to the right and my image from the wall watched every small move of my head and upper torso. I looked directly at the mirror several times to be sure there was no other person there present. "You'd be surprised, she has a lot of clients," my wife reassured me from the outer room. I had to admit the young woman made me feel increasingly comfortable and she was doing a great job.
This aging process has its down-side, I continued thinking later at home. The devil is truly in the details. It seems I'm not yet sure if I have come to terms. This term "coming to terms with one's own mortality" is peculiar. What does it really mean? I look across my desk at the pictures of my grandchildren, my Wesleyan mug covered with dust and filled with old pencils and pens from the days when I had no word processor. If terms are part of the process, there must be a contract to create. What is the nature of such a contract? Another friend suggested the promise of 20 virgins waiting at the gates of Heaven for the faithful men of Islam. What about the women? For many Christians it may be the promise of reuniting with loved ones who are long deceased.
My reward in the contract seems at this point to be neatly trimmed nails, and I realize I have higher goals for the terms of my end of the contract. A friend comments, "Why not see the manicure as enjoyable, a luxury, something of relief and the bidding goodbye to snagged and unkempt nails?" There I go, with two uncomfortable words: luxury and enjoyment, old Puritan strictures which my wife says she has tried to unload for me these past many decades.
After all, we humans float in the same boat and come to the same inevitable end of life as part and parcel of the same contract. We learn, if we are at all sentient, that an overall surrender or giving up can be the source of comfort and leaving time for important and productive aspects while living. When balancing my checkbook becomes too onerous, I can call on a bookkeeper; when the grass mowing and gardening bring on too much back pain, I can pass the work on to my son or simply start buying cheaper vegetables at the grocery, and so forth through a mountain of minutia which make up the devil's details as quoted above. A current TV spot advertising financial services shows a crossroad of highways in a far west desert newly laid with asphalt, without obstruction of any kind including traffic. Voice-over booms out the reprimand that you would never assume the road to retirement was clear and easy; neither would we, "Visit our offices for help in planning your momentous life changes."
It's not the only advice I'd take. I like my friend's advice of last week who understands the deal better than anyone else I know. She has been a great reader and amassed a sizeable library of books over a long life. Her current project is to neaten up and leave her fairly affairs organized to the extent her successors will have an easier time when the grim reaper makes his visit. She tells me she sits by her bookcase, taking one book at a time, then asking the question, "How many times have I re-read this book and how many times in the next year will I read it again?" Since the answer to both questions is mostly Never! her task is reduced to giving the book away or sending it to the rubbish. True, there is some pain in relinquishing a loved book, but it can be done - and both she and her family will be thankful. Giving up of nail cutting and gardening, writing checks and balancing the account are less painful overall and well worth the satisfaction of more restful days at a time when aging without fail brings less strength and vitality. Giving up those things of life which prove most difficult may be painful at first, but the pain leaves quite quickly.