Can aging be redemptive?

In front of a book club of fifty strong seniors at Sherwood Oaks retirement home, I spoke about my experience of going blind. “Not everyone with a disability has gone through a grieving process,” I told them. But losing sight at twenty-six, I did mourn—my lost vision—a joyous gift and a tremendous convenience, my lost identity and privileged status, my lost mobility and grace of movement, my seemingly lost career. I spoke of stereotypes that disempowered me and the benevolent discrimination that entitled sighted people to think they knew better what was best for me. But then I spoke of how all of those deficits, but the sight, were restored through an excellent training program. And then the process of going blind and the daily challenge of living with disability offered such gains as maturity, values-clarification, acquisition of habits of perseverance, discipline, reading, the development of a mental life and sensitivity to others in minority groups.
“Blindness and the subsequent hearing loss were redemptive,” I said. “But…in two days I turn seventy.”
Fortunately the audience gasped. I’m sure jaws dropped, and several members collapsed on the carpet since I look so young!
But I asked if there were similarities in aging to my losing sight. “Do we mourn our aging?”
I asked how many how trouble with vision, with hearing, with physical mobility—and I think almost everyone in the audience admitted to one or more capacities diminished.
“Can aging threaten our identity, control, power, and grace of movement?”
“Yes.”
“And are there stereotypes and jokes about the aged? Is there benevolent discrimination?”
“Definitely.”
“Aside from not dying, is aging redemptive?”
And then the audience took over, telling me about the freedom they felt as retirees for new chapters in their lives, to do whatever they wished. They felt an escape in old age from daily stress. They had learned only recently not to “sweat the small stuff” and many claimed to have gained a serenity they’d never known. And yes, there was the pleasure of grandchildren, of seeing their own children unfold and thrive. And “old men can get away with more!”
“So can old ladies!”
Uproarious laughter.
So I made a vow to those men and women that with each new year I would not “fudge” about my age, but celebrate. My parents died at 65 and 68, so 70 is triumphal. I will not make flimsy jokes about forgetfulness, because I have (like many blind people) a remarkable memory, keeping my whole schedule in my head. I won’t joke about dodderiness or give organ recitals or complain. I’ll try to face each new loss with courage and humor and always try to find meaning and purpose in life.
The irony of the day was that while I gained so much from that audience, they paid me for talking!

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About Sally Hobart Alexander

Blinded at the age of twenty-six, I left California and elementary school teaching for life in Pittsburgh, Pa. There, I met my husband, got a Masters' degree in social work, had two kids, now 35 and 32, and became a writer. Surprisingly, the writing career led me full-circle to teaching, and I teach in Chatham University's M.F.A. program and lead two writing critique groups. Always, since the age of 26, I have traveled, not in the stereotypic darkness attributed to blindness, but a mist. My blog then, "traveling through the mist" will deal with issues in my culturally different life as a blind writer, teacher, speaker, and human being.
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