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A Letter to Edna

They had found her in their apartment, dead, a plastic bag over her head. She had left a terse note: "The journey is over. Love to all."

Dear, dear Edna,

It came as a shock, the news that she had committed suicide at the age of 77.

"She" was Carolyn Heilbrun, a distinguished professor of literature at Columbia University and a prominent feminist scholar. It was her book, Writing a Woman's Life, that had inspired and sustained my own biographical studies of Filipino women writers. More meaningfully to me, she authored The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty, a work whose vision enabled me to face my own approaching old age with not just resigned acceptance but also anticipated joy. A memorable sentence from that book was this: "Neither rocking on a porch, nor automatically offering her services as cook and housekeeper and child watcher, nor awaiting another chapter in the heterosexual plot, the old woman must be glimpsed through all her disguises which seem to preclude her right to be called woman. She may well for the first time be woman herself."

Heilbrun wrote that statement when she was 71 years old. She committed suicide at the age of 77. What had happened during this interval of time to alter so radically her view of old age?

Had she been ill or been informed of an impending illness? Not to anyone's knowledge. Had she been depressed? Not according to her family. In fact, her suicide came as a shock to her husband and three grown children. They had found her in their apartment, dead, a plastic bag over her head. She had left a terse note: "The journey is over. Love to all."

Her middle-aged daughter Margaret, who was the child closest to Heilbrun, confessed herself not so much angered by her mother's suicide as mystified: "She had so many more friends than I did—friends and acquaintances, people who looked up to her, who saw her as nurturer and role model. Was it that she herself had no one to turn to? Why did she feel so isolated? She must have had fear and other feelings I can't begin to have known."

Heilbrun's closest friend, a retired professor at Union Theological Seminary, regards Heilbrun as having had a very strong ethical sense. "It was her intention to live a moral life, and one of the components of that life was that life ought to be for something."

Had Heilbrun feared that old age, with its attendant diminishment of powers, would inevitably render her what she called "a useless person"? For an agnostic like Heilbrun, that prospect may have held terrors beyond death itself.

I received an unexpected blessing from a priest friend, himself an elderly man. He prophesied that caring for my parents would be difficult and demanding, but that it would offer me great "spiritual clarity."

This speculation is supported by a close friend who recounted the times she and Heilbrun had agreed on suicide as a sensible alternative to advanced old age. "To watch parents go on and on and on, and well beyond when they would have liked to have gone, makes one feel strongly that you want to end it while you are still capable of doing so." It was perhaps for that reason that Heilbrun chose to end her life's journey of 77 years on her own terms, at a place and time she had determined herself. It was to be, and apparently was, a deliberate act of will.

I have no information whether Heilbrun ever had the actual experience of watching her parents live to an advanced age. I know only that I am undergoing that experience right now, in my own life. And what I can say, with quiet conviction, is that this experience is teaching me the opposite of what Heilbrun apparently believed about the so-called "uselessness" of old age.

But let me go back a few years.

When it had become apparent that many of my middle age years would be spent in the care of my aging parents, I received an unexpected blessing from a priest friend, himself an elderly man. He prophesied that caring for my parents would be difficult and demanding, but that it would offer me great "spiritual clarity."

At the time I was not certain what he meant by "spiritual clarity" but I have since been discovering it for myself. The circumstances of my life have positioned me in such a way that I am witnessing, at sometimes disturbingly close range, the natural cycle of life and death. That position has afforded me a perspective of life much wider and clearer than I would have otherwise. From this vantage point, I have not only what Wordsworth called "intimations of immortality" but also those of mortality—and the "usefulness" of human life.

Because my parents can no longer lead the very busy lives of their earlier years, are they now "useless"? Because they spend so much of their time lying in bed or sitting in front of the television set, are they now of no "usefulness"?

To my mind, these are the wrong questions to raise. The pivotal question is this: Useful to whom? To oneself or to others? To the self or to Life itself? To the created self or to the Creator Herself?

Death theoretically ends one's usefulness—or does it? The lifeless body of El Cid, saddled on his horse at the head of the Christian troops, was useful to his army's victory. The bullet-riddled body lying on the tarmac restored life to a deadened democracy and infused it with people power. On a less dramatic scale, there are countless examples of how the dead serve lives other than their own. To name just one commonplace example, the healthy heart of a dead patient, transplanted to the chest cavity of another patient, allows the latter to survive death and go on to lead a healthy, useful life.

We recognize these episodes as expressive of her subconscious yearning to return to the safety and familiarity of her home. But she has not once expressed this wish in a conscious way, as a desire for death.

What of those who are terminally ill or far advanced in years, how can they be said to be of any use to others? Worse, are they not, objectively speaking, heavy burdens on the living and therefore doubly useless?

Actor Christopher Reeves feared as much and freely confessed that had he been able to move his totally paralyzed body, he would have thrown himself out a window and killed himself. Unable to do so, he lived on and in time discovered a motive to continue living: to advocate the intensification of medical research that would give others like himself a second chance at life. Without his initially intending it, Reeves, who had in three films played the role of Superman, became the hero of a cautionary tale for those who saw value only in a life lived bigger-than-life as a comic book superhero. Reeves's heroic efforts did not, at the end, serve him but they did serve the cause of tens of thousands of others.

Ah, yes, concedes the cynic. But what if Reeves had been an ordinary man who had fallen off his horse and broken his neck? Of what use would such an ordinary mortal be?

My mother is just such an ordinary mortal. Why not take her as an example? She is a frail 92-year-old whose mind is steadily deteriorating with age and whose personality is slowly disintegrating before our eyes. Is she now so useless that she would wish herself already dead?

Over the last few months, my mother has repeatedly spoken of her wish to return to a place she calls home. During her more agitated moods, she has insisted on packing her clothes and demanding that she be driven home to her hometown of Guagua, Pampanga. There are times when, waking from sleep, she plaintively asks for her mother.

It breaks our heart to watch her at these times. We recognize these episodes as expressive of her subconscious yearning to return to the safety and familiarity of her home. But she has not once expressed this wish in a conscious way, as a desire for death. She tells me that she prays for a peaceful death, that she be spared a lingering illness, but that is all. There is no doubt that it is my mother's deep-seated faith that enables her to endure the long wait before God ("ing Apung Ginoo") comes for her.

Ah yes, concedes the cynic once again. Your mother may have the faith to endure this seemingly interminable waiting. But what about you, the living, who must care for her now and in later years when she will have grown even more infirm? Putting your filial emotions aside, surely you must concede that she will soon be completely useless?

By way of answer, let me tell you about my brothers.

We are forced to re-examine and reorder our priorities in life. Most important of all, we are discovering the joy not so much of being loved by our parents (we had grown up knowing ourselves loved) but of loving them.

My older brother, as a youth, had caused our parents many sleepless nights. Though he eventually grew to be a more responsible adult, he also became self-absorbed. Though no longer the rebellious youth, he became indifferent to all that did not directly affect his career and social position. But that attitude has steadily undergone a change. The weaker our parents have become, the stronger he has exercised the initiative of the eldest child, taking active charge of caring for them. He has chosen to continue living in a house directly opposite theirs, to enable him to visit them regularly twice a day. He inspects our father's drawers to see if he has enough clean socks. He opens the refrigerator to check if there are enough bottles of Gatorade. He remodeled their bedroom, to allow my mother easier access to the toilet. Recently, he installed bamboo screens to shield their room from the heat of summer.

My younger brother is no less devoted to our parents. The baby of the family, it is he who coaxes our mother to eat, taking her out to lunch to her favorite restaurants or bringing in her favorite take-out food. Made of sterner stuff than our older brother, it is he who usually accompanies our parents for blood tests and laboratory procedures. During an earlier period when our mother went through episodes of violent rage, it was he who patiently sat up with her at nights, holding her hands as well to restrain them as to comfort her.

Sharing the responsibility of caring for our elderly parents, we three siblings have had to divide among ourselves the multiple tasks involved in caregiving. We are forced to regularly coordinate our schedules and periodically consult with one another. Despite a normal degree of friction, we have grown closer to one another, tightening the bonds that hold us together as a family.

Watching our once-powerful parents grow weaker and more dependent on us day after day after day, we are compelled to confront our own fears about death and dying. At the same time, we have had to redefine for ourselves and our own children the concepts of success and wealth. We are forced to re-examine and reorder our priorities in life. Most important of all, we are discovering the joy not so much of being loved by our parents (we had grown up knowing ourselves loved) but of loving them.

And cynics say our parents in their old age are now useless?

How can she bear it, I once asked a close friend who like me had been caring for her ailing mother. Her answer was as profound as it was simple. "She is simply being."

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who died at the age of 94, spent the last two years of her life, silent. Whether unable to speak or merely unwilling to communicate, she kept her silence. This state was initially a matter of grave concern to her family, specially to her daughter who had, like Lindbergh herself, become a writer and therefore valued words. In time, however, she accepted the situation for what it was and chose to relate to her silent mother no longer in terms of words but of images. Firm in her belief that her mother was moving at her own pace towards death, she imagined her engaged in a slow dance. "I saw her in my mind's eye, all by herself, moving across a large room towards two tall French doors that opened onto a garden full of sunlight."

It is a hauntingly beautiful image that is indelibly printed in my imagination, but it is not one I see appropriate for my own mother. Not being an ambassador's daughter, as Lindbergh was, my mother had never once even been to a ball. The image of her as dancer simply does not hold true. What image then?

I look at her and see an old woman sitting quietly in a chair, her hands folded on her lap, her eyes unfocused on anything in her immediate surroundings. She spends much of her time like this, for hours on end. How can she bear it, I once asked a close friend who like me had been caring for her ailing mother. Her answer was as profound as it was simple. "She is simply being."

Not doing, just being.

It is then I see, with a slight shock of recognition, the image I have been searching for, the image by which I shall always remember my mother in her old age.

Behold her, a lily of the field. She neither toils nor spins but I assure you that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as she is.

A lily of the field, my dear, dear Edna.
That is what you are, now, in your old age.
So hold your face up to the sun and sway as the Spirit moves you.

April 2005

© Edna Zapanta Manlapaz

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