Dear Salty #3: Old and Young

Dear Salty,

I want to leave my husband. He’s a depressive alcoholic, and refuses to get help. But since I recovered from cancer treatment, I’ve accepted that I can no longer work full-bore, as I did when I owned a small business. Chemo left me with symptoms that aren’t getting any better. Doctors don’t have much to offer. I can get along day to day, but only by using a lot of medicines and herbs and routines I’ve figured out. I think I could work full-time in the right office position, but where I live now, there isn’t much employment. So I can’t support myself, which means I can’t pay rent, which would sound like it means I’m totally stuck and can’t leave. But for one thing: I’ve kept in touch with an old teacher from when I was very young. She mentored me then, and kind of mothered me, which filled a hole in my heart, because my father was drinking and being at home was scary. She’s now invited me to move in with her. The idea’s attractive. It would mean moving back to my hometown—a place I love, actually. I love her, too. But she’s very old. I don’t know how long this will last, and what will happen to her. I don’t know how she will age further. She has grown kids who live far away and I don’t know these people and I don’t know how they’ll take to me moving in with her. I’m uncertain what I’m getting into. I hate the idea of throwing myself from the frying pan into the fire.


Dear Salt-seeker,

There’s an idea that, when we’re quite young, we sometimes have no knowledge of old people. That they’re some species apart. Their bodies are odd. They’re always complaining about those bodies. It seems very strange to be so preoccupied with one’s body, when we’re young and have bodies that just work. Those bodies usually move without much effort, do what we want, and we don’t think about that at all. We might have some health problem or disability, but we can often get medicines that correct it pretty well, or tools like wheelchairs to zip us around. We ride bikes and learn to drive and squeeze enough math into our brains to get by. Or we learn how to use power tools or how to start intravenous lines. We learn software and then maybe write some. Learning new stuff is something we do, and we look into the future a lot. Old people speak about the past. They seem from another world, a world where people play cards, listen to big-band music, and talk about what they did during the war. And they don’t mean the Vietnam War or the Iraq War. They mean World War II or Korea. A different century, when some people thought the world would end because dictators were invading places around them and putting other people in concentration camps (eh—the latter happened here too). And people feared these dictators might finally get to the US, perhaps resulting in no more dancing to big-band music. And then those wars were over and lots of Americans liked Ike and lots of countries liked America.

Suddenly I’m thinking that this isn’t so far away. Hitler and Stalin. Mussolini and Tojo. Putin and Trump. Very uncertain times. People feeling on the edge. Except most Republicans wouldn’t like Ike now. They’d think he was a dangerous liberal.

The thing about getting older is that you’re a lot the same person inside as you were when you were thirteen or thirty-three, except your body doesn’t always work so well. This sneaks up. You barely notice it for quite a while, because you just ignore it. Then you try harder to ignore it, and that works, until it doesn’t. You may relate to this, Salt-seeker, as your own body seems to be doing a bit of that.

Perhaps, then, you can bridge with your old friend there. You can understand how she’s changed from the woman you knew, by looking back as you probably do now, on how you yourself have changed. Your body, your perceptions of life. You know more about how to live than you did when you were thirteen—how to deal with boyfriends and girlfriends, and jobs and money. And your body knows, well, less. It forgot some things. Perhaps it’s similar to hers in that way.

Yet, the other side of this I hear from you is that you’re afraid. Afraid of her decline, perhaps gradual, perhaps precipitous. How you will feel as you see and live with that, and what you will do in response. If you do live with her for a while she may change, physically and maybe mentally. Body parts break, often like dominos, one after another. Accidents happen and old people’s bodies do not deal with them well. A fall can cause a stroke, or a stroke can cause a fall, and often it’s impossible to figure out which came first. But there can then be a broken hip and a broken cerebral artery as well, which means a bleed, which means any number of nasty things, from paralysis to confusion and more. That “more” is just no fun at all. And then where will you be, who will care for her, will you have a place to live, and under what terms?

It’s probably a good idea to broach this with your friend. She’s not an idiot. She knows perfectly well she’s old, and that she will die someday. Young people don’t know this. They think they’re immortal. Old people do know it, and they either throw a ton of energy into denying it, or they face it matter-of-factly. Somehow I have the feeling your friend is of the latter sort. If you are brave and bring this up along with telling her how much you care for her, she will probably be brave enough to think about it with you. She was once almost your mother, after all. So you can be almost her daughter now.

So that’s part of the uncertainty. Another part is her kids. What will they want from you or allow you? Will they appreciate you, or resent you? If something happens to her and you cannot help her at home and she has to go into a nursing home, will they kick you out? Perhaps you can together nail down some sort of plan to protect you there, at least for a while.

In the meantime, how will you live with her? It’s her home and she has her own habits. You will need to adapt to them, just as you would if you moved into a shared household at the bottom of the pecking order and someone else holds the lease. Indeed, she will see you as a guest in her home. And you will need to be perhaps all these things: daughter, guest, eventually maybe part-time caretaker.

Is she a little deaf? Lots of old people are, and she may turn the TV to a decibel level you find migraine-inducing. If she is politically conservative, she may have Fox on all the time, except when she is watching “The Real Housewives of Wasilla” or “This Old Mini-Mansion.” If she is just a little bit racist or misogynistic or homophobic or religiously bigoted, you may need to bite your tongue until you taste blood. If you want to watch “Masterpiece Theater” and she likes “Lifestyles of the Rich and Tacky,” you know what the TV will be turned to. Because you are her guest.

You need to get clear on what you want. What do you want to accomplish? What do you want to experience? You might best think of this living situation as a temporary rest stop, a kind of mezzanine on your path further up the zigzag staircase of your life. It can be a time to job-hunt for a new position, a space to conceive a new business, a chance to learn new skills. What you don’t want to do is flee—“do a geographic,” as 12-step people say. Because if you focus on running away from your husband, you choose to live in fear and what Buddhists call aversion. You want to focus instead on stepping forward with verve. But do this realistically. Your situation with your friend, and your next situation after that, won’t be perfect. Because your friend isn’t. Her house isn’t. Your hometown isn’t. But most importantly, you aren’t. And you don’t have to be, but it will help you to see that. Because I’m betting that part of what made you miserable living with your husband was you. After all, you picked him. As 12-step people also say, we are our own problem. And we bring ourselves with us, with all our tangles and frayed bits, wherever we go. Take the opportunity to notice your knotty, raw self. Breathe, and take in the scene, the lovely mess, the work in progress that you are.



Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble and if I stay it will be double so come on and let me know. Ask


Susan Nordmark’s essays, poetry, and fiction have been published in EntropyPeacock JournalDraft: The Journal of ProcessPorter Gulch ReviewMatrix, and elsewhere. She studied anthropology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz and Harvard, and now lives in Oakland, California.



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