What do you see when you look at all the old people around you?
“So, you are very into pottery,” she said, as I walked her to the front door, pointing to the many terracotta pots and figurines that lined the hallway. “Not really,” I demurred. “These were all made by my mother-in-law.”
I could see her do a double take as I said this, though she was polite enough to disguise it. And sadly, I could understand why. These days, my mother-in-law is confined to her bed – bar the occasional whirl on the wheelchair – with round-the-clock nursing care. So, all that those who visit her now see is an old, frail woman who needs to be cared for as you would a small child.
And that is true, as far as bare facts go. But what is also true is that there is so much more to the woman lying in bed than her fragility and helplessness. But most people can’t really look beyond appearances to see this essential truth. They find it easier to deal with her reality by infantilizing her. And in seeing her as an infant (“it’s like a second childhood, isn’t it?” they smile indulgently) they wipe out her entire history, reducing her to a cipher instead of the three-dimensional woman she is.
But even though her visitors can’t seem to look beyond the obvious – an aged, helpless woman lying in bed, with nurses hovering solicitously around her – what I see is something very different indeed. When I sit by her bedside, I see a whole lot more.
I see the bright young student, the first woman of her family to go to university in America to study industrial psychology (a subject that most people in India didn’t even know existed). I see the defiant woman who eloped with the man of her choice in the face of parental opposition. I see the radiant bride in Paris, in her Patola sari and her bouquet of flowers, basking in the glow of her happy-ever-after love story. I see the working mother, juggling office and a baby. I see the dreamer who gave it all up to become India’s leading pottery artist. I see the untimely widow, left to rebuild her life, coping with adversity as best she could. I see the doting mother, the loving mother-in-law and the indulgent grandmother.
I see a person. A person with a history, a person who led a fun, full and fulfilling life, who loved, lost and then found peace and contentment in whatever circumstances life thrust upon her. I see stories in her wrinkles, laughter in her eyes, joy in her smiles.
What do you see when you look at the aged people all around you? Do you regard them as objects of pity? Do you see them as a waste of time? Do you find them to be a drain on your resources? Do you resent them for growing old and infirm when you weren’t looking? Do you feel anger because they are casting a depressing shadow on the best years of your adult life? Do you feel ineffably sad to see what they have turned into? Do you feel guilty because you feel you don’t do enough? Does that, in turn, make you feel angry at them for making you feel this way? Or do you just feel toe-curling fear at the thought that one day you could be just like them?
I guess at some point or another in our lives, we have felt all or most of these emotions. And given how universal they are, we should not feel ashamed for feeling this way. And yet, more often than not, shame is exactly what we feel. And it is that shame that makes us back away from the elderly just when we should be hugging them even closer.
Maybe one way of coping with this is to look beyond the wrinkles, the sagging flesh, the clouded eyes, and the sparse hair. Instead we should look for the rich histories that live behind them, the complicated tapestries of a life well lived, which would keep us entertained for days if we only knew even the half of it.
But the sad truth is that most people have to pass on before we are willing to grant them their histories, not to mention their stories. That’s when we sit down and giggle about the time grandmom nearly burnt the house down or how grandpa turned into such a rogue when he drank a little. We giggle about that family trip where mom lost all her clothes at the riverside when she went for a holy dip. We tell each other funny stories about family weddings and annual picnics, starring the recently departed. We pull out old picture albums, which make us both laugh and cry.
That’s when we remember the old as the people they were. Ironic, isn’t it? We are only willing and able to give them their lives back once they depart them. What a pity it is that we can’t seem to accord them that dignity and respect, not to mention affection and remembrance, when they are still around to appreciate it.
I know it’s hard, but surely, it can’t hurt to try?