On Aging: Headlights in the Fog

My writing desk sits in the corner between two casement windows on the second floor of our home. When I look up and out the window in front of me, I sometimes feel like I’m in a tree-house, especially on summer days when the full branches of an ornamental cherry tree practically obscure my view. In winter, those same branches are bare of leaves, but filled with chattering finches, junco’s, sparrows, and cardinals, feasting on the dark red cherries that sustain them during the cold weather. 

But this morning my view is hampered by gray wooly fog, a blanket of cotton laid over the horizon. I can almost make out the street sign on our corner, can barely see past the neighbor’s  trash cans, set out for the morning pickup. The view down the long and winding road stops about 500 feet away, instead of stretching on for the usual half mile or more.

Amidst all this gray, my eye is drawn to small flash of red, the large bows tied on each of the gaslights at the end of our driveways, a festive touch to welcome the holiday season. Just past that, I spy two floating white orbs, headlights of a car wending its way through the fog. 

Lately I feel as if I’ve been living in a kind of fog, a blanket of uncertainty and perceived loss shrouding the usual clear vista. Along with ongoing concerns about my mother’s age and increasing infirmity, come concerns about my husband, who has recently been plagued with a number of diagnosis-defying health issues.

Caring for an aging parent, while never easily defined, is at least predictable. I’ve been focused on the care of older people for so long, I’ve become somewhat accustomed to the associated emotions: the uncertainty, the poignancy, the inevitable guilt. The outcome of this particular caretaker’s journey is not pleasant, but it’s at least fairly sure. The pathway of it is dotted with loss; the outcome is a huge and final one.

But my husband’s illness has forced me out of that elder care mindset, the one I’ve grown so accustomed to, and into a different one altogether. This is not quite the same road. This is the one where I have to adjust my expectations about what our lives together will look like for the next 20 years, where I have to rethink my plans, where I have to squint through a dense fog in search of a tiny spark of red, or an orb of golden light. 

We often drive through life on cruise control. Set the accelerator and lift your foot off the gas pedal, go through each day mindlessly doing the necessary work and errands, gently applying the brakes for a special occasion here or there. Maybe (if you’re lucky) slowing down for a long vacation at the beach or a river cruise along the Seine. 

Occasionally, like this morning, a thick wooly fog descends and you can no longer see your way clearly. What’s coming up next? you wonder. Am I about to crash into a semi truck or drift across the guardrail and topple over the bridge?

When that happens you grip the wheel a little bit tighter, turn on the bright lights, and hope the way becomes clear. You strain your eyes, your heart, and your whole being toward that glimmer of a headlight or that sparkle of red tied round the lamppost.

Right now I’m counting on my husband’s doctors to help us illuminate the way forward. Their knowledge and expertise is the beacon of light we need to keep us on the right path. 

But I know the red sparkle will come from us. We must take their knowledge and wrap it around our lives, our hopes, our understanding of our selves, and define the path we need to continue traveling down this road.