What Happens Next? The aged are on the threshold of new life

By Melissa Musick Nussbaum

I have two aunts left. My aunts began dying when I was in my 30s. As my children were being born and growing up, my aunts were fading and slipping into death. Like roses that wilt and dry up even as new buds form and blossom, they fell off the branch and into the grave. I was occupied with my growing garden, and the grief I knew was overshadowed by the work and the joy of caring for my family. Besides, my aunts were old. Aunt Maxine had come in with the 20th century. Both she and the century were weary and worn.

I am now at the age many of my aunts were when I begin thinking of them as “getting on.” These are November thoughts, and the church not only encourages such thoughts, it celebrates them. This is the month to reflect on “last things” and, so, to learn wisdom.

Both my living aunts are past 90 and both have moved out of their homes into places where care is available day and night. Both are widowed and both long to see their husbands again. One, Aunt Marge, is strong in mind, but frail in body. The other, Aunt Jenne, is strong in body but frail in mind. She says, brightly, “Don’t tell me anything. I’ll just forget it.” And she will.

I go to Texas to visit them. Aunt Marge can no longer stand or move unaided. Her decades-old Cadillac, its interior like two living-room couches set one in front of the other, sits on the Tulia street just outside her room. She used to leave the rest home daily, driving to Wanda’s to play cards or down to the senior citizens’ center for lunch and local gossip. Her world, which once included a farm stretching beyond the horizon, has shrunk to this room and the corridor outside.

She remembers all 93 years of her life, even the things she would rather forget.

I learn from the CNAs in the Amarillo facility that my Aunt Jenne has a beau. He calls her “Sug,” and “Honey,” they tell me. He sits with her at meals and calls her several times a day. He holds her chair for her and steadies her walker. It is the talk of the place, this December-December romance.

I ask her about it and Aunt Jenne smiles. Yes, she has a beau. He’s very sweet, she tells me, and very attentive.

“What’s his name?” I ask.

She looks down and frowns. I wait. A minute passes. She looks up, and shakes her head again. “Oh, I don’t know,” she says. “I can’t remember.” And she laughs, a little embarrassed not to be able to remember her sweetheart’s name.

I can see where the all-purpose endearments might come in handy.

November is an aging month. It feels worn out. The days shorten, hurrying toward night, as though the earth itself needs to lie down and rest. In our garden, only one tree, the beech, holds on to its leaves. They will fall before November ends.

But the beech will leaf again in the spring.

I am so rooted in this world and this life. I want to see what happens next: the next baby, the next step in each child and grandchild’s life, the next steps for my husband and me. I still expect “nexts.” I look forward to them.

My aunts remind me that this world is connected to the world to come. One opens on to the other. And this world, still so hospitable to me, seems increasingly strange and alien to them. We think it is because of these changes: new technologies, disturbing political developments. But my aunts are 20th-century women. They know all about new technologies and disturbing political developments. They went from being quarantined with scarlet fever (the quarantine flag raised above their houses and all their bedclothes and toys burnt once they recovered) to scarlet fever as a mild complaint, easily and quickly cured with antibiotics. They’ve lost brothers and friends to war.

The world is increasingly strange and alien to them because the people who make it home are, one by one, passing over, dying, and going from this world to the next. So my aunts grieve, but not like those who have no hope. They cling to St. Paul’s exhortation:

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14)

We speak of remembering the dead in November. We most often mean recalling them. But we are also to re-member the dead, that is, be reconnected — though hidden from one another’s sight — to those with whom we shall, soon, be together.

Babies turn our eyes to the future. But the elderly turn our eyes that way, as well. At both poles of life, we are reminded of our dual citizenships, in this world and in the world to come.

_ _ _
This article appears in the November 2014 issue of Celebration. Melissa Musick Nussbaum is a regular columnist for Celebration. She lives in Colorado Springs, Colo. Contact her at mmnussbaum@comcast.net.

Learn more about Celebration or subscribe.