Last week I accompanied my mother for a laboratory test. As we sat waiting for her turn, we noticed an elderly woman who was limping from one desk to another, in an apparent attempt to complete the papers required prior to the test. In obvious frustration, she said aloud to no one in particular in the waiting room: “Kaya naman kung minsan gusto ko nang mamatay.”
What must have prompted this remark, besides frustration, was the fact that she had to undergo this medical checkup alone. For a well-dressed lady belonging to the upper-middle class, this lack of a companion was surprising. No uniformed nurse, no maid. No family member, no friend.
Was she too tightfisted to hire a professional caregiver? Was she estranged from family members, not one of whom might have volunteered to accompany her during this medical visit? Had she no kumadre, neighbor or friend she could have called upon to do her this kindness?
Or was she perhaps just a proud woman in stubborn denial of her need of a helpful companion at such a time?
Leaving the cubicle where the medical technician had drawn blood specimens from her arm, the elderly lady nearly fell into a swoon. “Nahihilo ako,” she remarked, again to no one in particular. A kind woman quickly stood up and offered her arm. Reluctantly but gratefully, the elderly lady took the proffered arm. Minutes later I saw the two women slowly walking to the hospital’s driveway, where the elderly lady’s car and driver were waiting to transport her safely home.
Was it Blanche DuBois who declared that we are often dependent on the kindness of strangers?
Of late, I have been discovering this truth for myself.
I was not always this way. My mother tells me that even as a child, I was headstrong, pushing away the protective arms of caregivers, rushing headlong into whatever I was intent on doing. “I can do it by myself,” I would say, over and over again. And I did, over and over again, through the years.
Unlike other kids who needed help dressing up for school, I insisted on putting on my uniform by myself, no matter that socks were sometimes mismatched and ribbons clumsily clipped to my hair. Unlike my two brothers who needed help with their homework, I took pride in doing mine all by myself (okay, except occasionally in math).
While my colegiala friends needed to be chauffeured to this place and that, I rode buses and jeepneys to take me wherever I wanted to go, whenever I wanted to go.
This acquired habit of independence has served me exceedingly well, from childhood to adulthood, in my professional career and in my family life. It freed me from many of the restrictions that bound my contemporaries, that kept many of them miserably chained to a desk or pitifully bound to a husband, like the proverbial clinging vine. During the decade just past, my mantra had been, “Fifty and free!”
But for how much longer can I maintain this independence? My aging body warns: not for too long. My eyes have had to have their cataracts removed and their lenses lasered. My feet occasionally stumble over themselves, requiring me to grasp handrails. My lungs start to heave whenever I walk up stairs more quickly than I should.
Not that any of these difficulties, taken in themselves, are proving a handicap. But taken cumulatively, these changes in my physical stamina are steadily forcing me to adopt a less carefree lifestyle.
Take travel, for instance. These last few decades, I have been a hardy traveler, more often than not traveling on my own. But I foresee the time when I will no longer be able to hoist my luggage onto an airport carousel, no longer be able to run after departing trains, perhaps not even able to take a stroll on the deck of a cruise ship.
What then? Then I will have to depend on the kindness of others, even of strangers.
Stephen Levine, whose life work it has been to aid the terminally ill and dying, sets the scenario in these stark terms: “Many people do not feed themselves their last meal, or flush their last bowels.” He continues, “The body’s strength dwindles as it slowly approaches death. If we are fortunate, we are aided by caregivers [but] being looked after reinforces our sense of helplessness and a lifetime’s resistance to such feelings. There is something in us that finds it easier to serve than to be served.”
Has Levine any advice for those of us still in the “resistance mode?” Yes, and it is very direct advice. “Practice helplessness.” He suggests, among others, these two exercises. “(1) Leave your hands by your sides and let yourself be fed. (2) Let yourself be dressed by another. Do not lift your hands. Watch your frustration grow,” he advises. If nothing else, these exercises will help us become more compassionate toward the elderly and the infirm.
So this then is what I must not delay doing: to unlearn stubborn independence and instead, learn a gracious helplessness.
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