Portrait of an Old Woman

It is New Year. Another year.

Another year older. I hate getting older.

I joke about it – about forgetting a name here and searching for a word there, about new wrinkles, about an age spot, about the difficulty of getting rid of a flab around the stomach. But it bothers me. It feels as if somehow every day I am getting closer to being a smaller, weaker me with less ‘me’ in it.

Couple of days ago, I stumbled onto a new app on the phone that ages your picture for you. Supposedly, this will make you friendlier towards your future self, so you will take care of it better. Well, ‘it’ being me, really. Obviously. I knew that.

I found a picture of me on the phone I thought looked like ‘me’. The ‘me’ I know. The ‘me’ I like. I hit the “aging” button on the app…

****************************

I had come to visit Mrs Beren.

Her face looked small and fragile against the white hospital sheets. Old. Quite a bit older than her fifty-nine years, in fact. With so many chronic diseases, it was no wonder.

She had put on lipstick, I saw. Not a bright garish red I would have expected from someone who was vain enough to bother with makeup while being in the intensive care unit. No, it was a tasteful light pink that did not clash too strongly with her tired and pale face, wrung out from endless nights on a hospital mattress.

She was a strong woman, I knew. Not her body – that was weak – but her mind. I had always been fascinated by it for the years I had known her.

Strictly speaking, I didn’t have a reason to be here, monitoring her progress with the disease that had landed her in the hospital, for the umpteenth time. She had everything wrong with her. She could no longer walk due to neurological damage and depended on her husband to lift her from the chair to bed at night, and back to the chair in the morning. Her kidneys had failed her and her husband brought her to dialysis three times a week. Just this year, she had been in the hospital with pneumonia, urinary tract infection and now again with fever and sepsis that the doctors had not found a reason for yet.

Mrs Beren was not my patient.

Her husband was.

I had no reason to be here.

But her husband had asked me. I had run into him unexpectedly in the hospital hallway, looking out of place and out of sorts. I had been surprised to see him – he was one of my healthier patients, with a minor heart problem, who I saw for routine visits only once a year. He always came with his wife who drove herself into the room in a motorized red wheelchair. I had been confused by it at first – why bother coming to her husband’s appointments when clearly she was so much sicker than he? But after a few visits, I realized that this was their life. The edges of individual lives had blurred. It was a unit, with her being the guiding force. It had always been the two of them, all their lives since they were teenagers. When I asked questions from Mr Beren, the wife answered half of the time. They joked about how the new reliance on a wheelchair for transport no longer allowed them to enjoy traveling that they had been fond of in the earlier days of marriage. When I asked for a report on his exercising, it was the wife who proudly told me how she pushes him to go for a walk each evening – with her driving her motorized wheelchair, right next to him. They told me about the adjustments of their house they had to make, about the new car they had to buy. The life in their little unit had changed to accommodate her increasing disability but at the core they were still the same people.

I had not asked for their life story. It had just naturally flown out of them, piece by piece, over the years’ worth of visits.

So here I was, staring at Mrs Beren’s pink lipstick.

“I ran into Roy in the hallway”, I started. “He told me you could use a visit.”

“Good old Roy”. She looked up, pensive. “How did he seem?”

Confused by the question, I hesitated slightly. “He seemed … well. Worried, of course. About you. I know you have not had it easy lately.”

“No.” I could see she was testing the words before speaking. “I don’t think it will get any better, frankly. And I am pretty tired of being sick. I just don’t know what will happen to Roy when I’m gone. He is not strong.”

Implications were heavy between us. Not strong like her, getting herself to all her husband’s appointments in a wheelchair. Not strong like her, worried about her husband while lying deathly ill in the intensive care. Not strong like her, making herself pretty with lipstick on what she thought may be the last days of her life.

***********************

After I first hit the “aging” button, I slammed the phone down. The woman who had looked back at me from the picture was old. Heavily wrinkled, with saggy skin and grey hair.

Also, unmistakably me. It was chilling. Unnerving. A little nauseating.

I picked up the phone again and tried to look past the wrinkles. The confident pose I had liked on the initial picture was still there. The sparkle of enjoyment in the eyes was still there. The smile of general happiness with life was still there. It was me. Old – yes, but still ‘me’.

It made me feel better. The woman on the picture wasn’t smaller or lesser. Just different.

I don’t have a choice in getting older. But as a colleague and friend likes to point out frequently, the alternative is far worse. So, I can choose how I get older. I can choose to be the “me” I like even when old. I can choose to be strong even when sick.

I can choose to put on the lipstick.

 

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Portrait of an Old Woman, by Guido Reno

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