Sometime in 2013…
When I realized what was happening to me, I wanted to use elegant-sounding adjectives such as diaphanous or gossamer to describe the process or the outcome. Becoming diaphanous sounds so much more lovely than the reality of feeling myself disappear in dribs and drabs until I look like a moth-eaten cheesecloth or the elbow of my favorite sweater. I might even come to resemble the seat of my daughter’s Speedo after too many seasons of sun and chlorine.
This process had been stealthily underway for a few years before I stood up and took notice. Here, I am primarily referring to the fading and thinning, which is gradual and not, therefore, immediately noticeable. This gentle decline is unlikely to induce trauma.
I don’t care so much about the loss of color—skin lightening, lips fading from pink to beige, hair showing tendrils of white—or the miracle migration of hair from scalp to chin. The loss of skin tone is manageable. And so much for the loss of childbearing potential. I have three wonderful, healthy daughters, and I feel complete.
The loss of muscle has been a little harder to manage. I have always thought of myself as an athlete, a vigorous person, despite the fact that my exercise routine now generally consists of early-morning strolls through suburbia. This is par for the course, I tell myself, as is my diminished visual acuity and what may be the start of hearing loss. Oh, and who cares about that half inch of height? My daughters are thrilled to be taller than I am. They absolutely gloat. So let me be happy for them! It is well and good that they should wax as I wane.
No, I had expected all these developments. It was the disappearance of some of my actual substance that stopped me in my tracks. I went to look in the mirror, and whole chunks were not reflected back.
You know by now that my relationship to Germany, CityX, in particular, holds all kinds of powerful meanings for me. The years I spent there were critical in shaping my identity and my way of viewing life. Present during my formation and beyond, through the constant of our friendship, was Hanna.
As I aged and became further and further removed from those early days, Hanna validated that I had, in fact, existed in that time and place and had lead the life I recalled. The power of this type of shared memory, a kind of witness bearing, is truly a living thing. I think of it almost as blood.
Into my 40’s, this humor kept me firm and supple. I have experienced this phenomenon with other friends as well. My friend Anne, for example, knows my whole life starting with the first day of ninth grade. While our talks always contain new thoughts and happenings, part of what makes the friendship life giving is our holding of each other’s memories. The holding of each other’s substance, I’d say. For only certain people can recall whole swaths of us in this sacred way, keeping us alive and real as the pressure of time bears harshly down upon us.
My oldest friend, Hanna, routinely held up the mirror to me and told me the story of myself. I did the same for her. “Look in the mirror, Jane, look! There you are!”
“Look, Jane!” Yes, young Jane, you are still in this world. Even now, you exist. You are walking to school in your blue Kickers and wearing your green windbreaker. I see your pigtails swinging as you lope into the schoolyard with your red leather Schulranzen (bookbag) on your back. You are planning to collect horse chestnuts on your way home. Oh, there you are, kicking Peter Bachmann in the shin (again!). And remember how happy you always feel in the botanical garden? You are forever wandering the pea-gravel paths and rowing in the lake….
It went on and on, often wordlessly. I saw my story recited in her eyes.
I was unprepared for the blow which severed our friendship. It came in the form of a letter and carried with it the agony of death. The bitterness of Hanna’s denunciation left no room for reconciliation. It was as though she had died at her own hand and left a note saying, “I just want you to know you did this to me.” Terrible, unbearable, waves of shock, grief, self doubt, anger. It is hard to put into words, and trying to do so can still overwhelm me.
In the aftermath of her rejection, I began to notice the deflation. Parts of me began to sag and hurt. More gray in the hair, more hair in the brush. Hanna had withdrawn her holding power and denied a part of my fabric. I am smaller now, diminished. The fading has accelerated, and whole pieces are missing when I look into the mirror.
To a point, the thinning and shrinking is an unavoidable part of growing older. I do wonder, however, if it isn’t easier when friends die naturally or when they gradually move out of one’s life. I imagine the parts of us they hold drift off gently with the ebbing of their presence. I wonder—is this less painful than when they reject us and yank out great clumps of us on their way out the door? When there is grabbing, there is a sort of violence from which one must work hard to recover. At least this is true for me.
The good I have believed about myself and the authenticity of my experience has been ejected from the mirror and thrown down to crack into sharp pieces. My assumptions about myself must be reevaluated, and this will be difficult. A distorted version of events has been cut with a quick jerk of the jigsaw and bolted to the mirror–to the very spot where my eye has always sought perspective. Where do I look for answers now?
I have a lot of work to determine what is true here. I search and try myself.
Oh, I am understanding the aging process better as a result. I understand why I must diminish and become smaller and paler. Fewer and fewer people will know who I was and even who I have become; and key parts of my being will slowly disappear from consciousness altogether. I expect that in time people might stop noticing me in stores, restaurants, professional circles. Perhaps I will become just one more little old lady. Unremarkable. Unremarked. Hardly worth the effort of conversation. Someone whose presence is allowed but not welcomed. Seeing this potential clearly, I know that fear and vulnerability could cause me to shrink myself down further still, until I have withdrawn into a living death.
While I do not intend to lift, tuck, dye, buff, paint or plump myself back into a spectre of youth, I don’t begrudge those who would. It is simply not my style. Rather than deny the truth of my decline, I believe I will choose to welcome it. Yes, I am deciding right this very moment. I can cry over my losses or rejoice at my divestment.
It becomes my choice, then, to send Hanna off with a gift. No one can rip from me what I would freely give. To my children, I give my once-firm breasts and belly. To Henry, I present the lips which seek his and the hands which have issued countless caresses. To Christopher and Jack, my coaches, I offer the legs and feet of my youth. It was worth the bunions and fractures to know you, to run so fast. Hanna, I give you those parts which you have attempted to snatch. I nullify your theft by my consent. I bless you, dear friend….
Please don’t interpret my words as passive or depressive.
Make no mistake, I do not intend to go softly.
I will stubbornly affix myself to these pages so that I can look back and find myself when I feel unsure. And I’ll keep writing myself into new memories and new meanings. Just you wait and see. I ache at the loss of my past. I am unwilling to lose my future.
So I’m killing off the cheesecloth metaphor and sparing myself. I am made for better. That which remains of me after each act of giving will fold upon itself, concentrating my indivisible essence into an ever purer form.
I’m going to become my finest and truest self, a single filament as sinuous as silk and as strong as steel. And when I have divested myself so fully and stretched so thinly as to disappear altogether, I’ll just keep on going.
I am thankful for an eternal perspective.
This is part of The Story of Hanna. For the prior segment, please click here. For the next segment, please click here.