I think the first time I realized you can’t run away from suffering was when I volunteered at a nursing home in high school. I was simultaneously repelled and drawn to the older people there, who grasped to reach my hand as I passed by in the hall on my way to the activity center.
I wanted to be there because I sensed their severe loneliness and for some reason I could really empathize. On the other hand, I almost dreaded opening the doors to the facility where my sister and I painted old lady’s fingernails in the color they chose, because it saddened my heart. Some of the elderly were happy, it’s true. But I saw many who would show me pictures of loved ones and tell me they were coming to visit, maybe today, maybe the next, but in reality, they never did. I couldn’t have been 17 but I so vividly imagined myself in their worn slippers.
It’s true that there are many people in nursing homes that have frequent visitors who love them. In fact, my grandmother was one of them. She was cared for in a Catholic facility run by the Carmelite nuns. Her room, bright, clean and cheery, was right across the hall from the chapel, where she attended, Mass every day in her wheel chair. At least one of her children or grandchildren (she had over 50 of the latter) came to visit her daily. Down the hall was her best friend from childhood, who also had lived just down the street when they were young. It was good, as nursing homes go, but though she was feeble and needed around-the-clock care, she would much rather have been home and young and raising her kids again. Grandma would joke that she finally didn’t have to cook or clean up. But I saw her look longingly at the photographs that decorated her dresser, and it still made me sad that she had to be there.
Sometimes I wonder if young people realize that older folks used to be youthful like them, that their grandmothers were also daughters, and at one time young girls, who had dreams and hopes like they do. Do they understand that the woman behind the thick spectacles and wavy white hair cut cropped to her head was once a fetching young woman who entertained suitors? Do they know that the bent-over man with the uneven gait was once a champion track star? Earthly time speeds by like lightning. How else could you explain the words of my husband’s 90-year-old grandmother who whispered in my ear one afternoon after lunch, “These 90 years have gone by in the blink of an eye”?
Today my oldest parent-in-law is 80. There is a black-and-white photograph of him in World War II Air Force gear, hanging in our den. My oldest son is the age of my father-in-law in the picture. Yes, time sure flies.
This brings me back to the thought of suffering. Some of it, like wallowing in self-pity or not letting go of a grudge, is our own fault. But other suffering, like growing old and enduring the pains that go with it, is simply inevitable. Suffering is the result of sin in this world, and while we are here we will have it to some degree.
We can remember, too, that no matter what we suffer, Someone has suffered before us and completely understands. That Someone has known intense loneliness, rejection, and even physical pain to the point of death. That Someone promises to be with us during our loneliness and afflictions in our earthly lives and to bring us to eternal life. We should take solace in the words of Saint Paul: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor 4:16-18).
I would like to console the young girl I was at 17 and tell her that there is hope for the aging. Even as time marches on there is solace in our future, in growing old. If life were perfect and growing old easy we would never want the next step — heaven. Each wrinkle, each furrowed brow, each concrete evidence of time passing is a tearing away from the material world and a step closer to the spiritual one. I would tell my 17-year-old self that the ultimate goal — eternal youthfulness, eternal wisdom, eternal Truth, everything perfect and good: God Himself — is closer each passing day. And viewed in this light, being 42 or 82 — or, luck of luck, 102 — isn’t so bad.