Mortality shock

by tamarjacobson

Just after I had pulled a muscle in my upper left thigh the pain was excruciating. The thing is, I do not recall pulling the muscle. Indeed, I am not even sure when it occurred. It might have been when I folded my legs into a lotus position so that I could eat my dinner on the couch. Or perhaps it was the way I twisted it walking back into the kitchen. Who knows! Two Advil and a rather painful night later I hobbled to my computer and read: "Slow down, you’re exercising too much," over at The Boomer Chronicles.

In fact, I have been exercising rather a lot lately and then off I went flying in planes and sitting for long stretches driving in cars all over North Western PA. I guess my leg just did not know what to do with itself last night. Hence the pulling, tightening, squeezing, twisting, turning, writhing of muscle in its upper left thigh. Nothing a strong work-out and soak in a very hot bath did not almost fix later today.

Each sign of mortality shocks me. Not dramatically. No, not even passionately. It is like a little nudge, a niggle, teasing my brain and reminding me that life is short. It has taken me 57 years to get to this point, that is true. And in a way that feels like a long time. But, honestly … at times it is just a snap of my fingers. Am not quite done with ages thirties and forties in my brain, and yet the body squeaks and rattles, hobbles and twists and reminds me that yes indeed, one of these days I will be no longer. I will not last forever.

I have noticed that all kinds of people express mortality shock in very different ways. Some are adamant that they are flowing along, controlled, supported by the universe while everything happens for a reason. They are ready, willing and able to move onto the next stage, even excited to see what that stage might bring. Others do everything they possibly can to postpone the event: exercising, dyeing their hair, eating right, taking keep-me-young-forever pills, or even doing surgery to cover up the inevitable deterioration. Mortality shock has an affect on me, I have to admit. Over and over again I am reminded that I am older, aging, moving towards a world without me. I wonder what that world might look like. Will it exist if I am not there? Like a toddler peering through her fingers playing peek-a-boo, experimenting with her own being-ness, wondering egocentrically if she exists at all when her hands block out the light. Does darkness mean that the world will spin no longer?

Mortality shock helps me take those old grudges I have harbored for so long, and release them. For example, I used to feel so sad and forlorn that not one member of my family was present at my doctoral graduation. After ten years of struggle, long hours of work and study, I completed three degrees and graduated with my Ph.D. at age 49. The only woman in my family to have done so! And yet, no one came to celebrate my graduation with me.

Recently I was reminded of that as I was reading A Hope in the Unseen along with a faculty reading group I joined. The old grudge rose up and caused me some ancient pain. While completely incomparable to Cedric Jennings‘ story of struggle through amazing, seemingly insurmountable odds, my own academic achievement suddenly became apparent to me. Alone, without family models, support or encouragement, without their acknowledgment or pride in me, I left everything behind and plunged myself into a foreign land and the strange culture of academia. Working and studying full-time, while putting my own son through high school and college, I persevered against sometimes seemingly insurmountable odds – financial and emotional obstacles, even including an unimaginable lack of confidence. And yet, in the end, I achieved the degrees, wrote a book, and found a number of fulfilling and rewarding positions where I was able to contribute and work actively towards making a difference in the lives of teachers and children.

Thanks to mortality shock I allowed the grudge against family neglect to melt away and, instead, discovered my own worth. A wave of understanding washed over me. I had bucked our family system so much that, of course, people ignored my achievement. It had nothing to do with me. It was just all too amazingly weird for them to comprehend. The other day, as I described all of this to the group of faculty during our wonderful discussions and revelations about the book I realized just how grateful I am to aging. Yes indeed, I am shocked each time I am faced with my own mortality. I am certainly nowhere ready to leave this life, and have ever so much more I want to try out. But at least these feelings of physical deterioration, or that time is flying by, help me live more fully, present in the now, and let go of old grudges, finally replacing them with badly needed, long overdue, self-acknowledgment.

Oh well, I sigh, and rise up grunting and groaning at my aching thigh muscle, hobble into the kitchen for a cup of tea. Yes, all right. I think I will take two more Advil and go for a long walk in the woods to catch the cold, afternoon light before it goes out, poof, ending yet one more day in the rest of my life.