I’ve always been “vertically challenged,” as my friend Darlene puts it. In practical terms it means I need to keep a folding stool handy just about everywhere in the house. It means I need to stand on a small wooden riser when I play handbells. It means I really need a six-way adjustable drivers seat in the car so I can reach the gas pedal and still see over the hood. It means any pants I buy ready-made are too long, even those marked “Petite.” It also meant I could wear the highest heeled shoes I wanted without being taller than my boyfriends, (although that was always a moot point since my one and only “boyfriend" was a good ten inches taller than me.) It didn’t take long for my son to surpass me in height. At age 12, he was a full head taller than I was, a sobering realization for me in more ways than simply physical.
I’ve never minded being short, never seriously wished I were tall and willowy like fashion models. Occasionally I’ve longed for an extra inch or so, mostly when I’m in crowds - it’s surprisingly claustrophobic being in a dense crowd when there’s nothing in sight except a sea of backs and shoulders. But overall, I’ve been content with my stature.
In the past few years, I’ve had an inkling that I was shrinking. It’s not surprising - most of us do lose height as we age. I noticed it first when we still lived in our old house and I started having trouble reaching the mixing bowls on the top shelf of my cupboard. Those bowls had lived there since 1976, and I’d never had a problem reaching them before. Until one day, I couldn’t.
At this time last year when my mom was sick and dying, I began to actually feel myself shrinking. It was a peculiar sensation. I felt like something essential was being worn out of me, like I was being refined in a fiery furnace. Like I was getting torn down to my essence. I felt like I was getting smaller and smaller everyday, the weight of sadness and impending loss bearing down on me, compacting me from the inside and out.
And then last summer when I cleaned out my mother’s house, I brought home my wedding dress. It had been hanging in her basement since that May afternoon when I took it off 40 years before. I never gave it another thought, and was almost surprised to run across it again. For fun, I brought it home and tried it on. It fit perfectly everywhere, except for the fact that it puddled into a heap on the floor. At least three inches of ivory chiffon lay in a pool at my feet.
So when I went in for my annual checkup last week, I wasn’t surprised to hear the doctor tell me I had lost about 3/4 of an inch since my visit one year ago.
“Is that a lot to lose in one year?” I asked her.
“It’s more than you’ve lost in a year before,” she said. “But it’s not all that surprising with your spinal osteoporosis."
“Will I keep losing that much every year?” I inquired, suddenly alarmed at the image of myself literally shrinking away over the next 10 years until there was virtually nothing left.
She smiled reassuringly. “Probably not, especially if you keep taking the osteoporosis medication and calcium supplements, and don’t forget to do weight bearing exercise and stretches."
The idea of shrinking physically is disconcerting, enough so that I actually take prescription medication in hopes of staving it off. But what disturbs me most is the thought of disappearing in a more essential sense. Of no longer being “relevant” as the Millenials might say.
Of not mattering.
When we get to a certain age it sometimes seems as if we’re fading into the woodwork. Younger people barely tolerate us, and that’s if they notice us at all. Modern clothing styles look strange on our bodies, we don’t “get” the new music, books, or literature. It’s as if we’ve passed our prime, gone over our “best if used by” date stamp.
At the risk of extending the grocery metaphor too far, I don’t ever want to be one who languishes at the back of the shelf until I’m completely useless. That decision may be why I chafed at the bit during our six weeks in Florida. I wasn’t away long enough to search out something productive to do; but it was too long to simply do nothing except take walks, shop, and go out for lunch. Consequently, I felt myself - the one who likes a daily agenda, who likes to be productive and busy- beginning to disappear.
The quest to live a meaningful life intensifies with age. Realistically we know the amount of time we have left to make our mark on the world is shrinking right along with our height and our hairline. So there is an urgency to our activity, to the choices we make about how to spend our time. Perhaps it’s why so many people in my age group have recently revitalized their commitment to political activism. It’s important to us to make a difference in the world we live in, the one we leave behind for our children and our grandchildren to enjoy after we’re gone. Perhaps its why many of us seek second careers after we retire, and volunteer in ever greater numbers. Whether the world always recognizes it or not, we know we still have much to offer. We still MATTER, in a myriad of important ways.
I may be older, but I’m also wiser. And I prize the additional wisdom a lot more than I mourn the loss of those three inches that disappeared in the last decade. I may be only five feet tall, but my life experiences and my willingness to share them give me permanent standing in the world around me. My physical body may be shrinking, but there’s still a really incredible human being inside it, one that’s got a lot more growing and giving to do.