Aging, I Wrote
Abstract and Keywords
The introduction tells of the author's development as a gerontological social worker and educator.
The frail elder is at risk and in need of social work services when transactions with the family and environment are maladaptive.
“FRAIL” and “elderly”—with their connotations of disability, decline, and universality—are not favored in the gerontological lexicon of today. Younger colleagues prefer “older adult.” I revel in referring to myself as an “old lady.” Yet I and my coauthor—both in our forties—reflected the words and thoughts of 1983. To our credit, the rest of the book did not continue the pontificating tone of its opening. There were even some thoughts I would repeat today, if not in such stilted form. Still we could not have known the lived experience until we lived it.
How I loved Angela Lansbury in the television series Murder, She Wrote! As Jessica Fletcher (older woman / successful writer / amateur sleuth), she had a way of getting to the bottom of things. It was always in the course of an ordinary day that she was called on to solve the case of a mysterious death. Putting aside the mundane tasks she was about to perform, she got right down to it; rearranging the facts until all the pieces fit, converting the situation into a story of cause and effect that made sense. Case closed, she picked up where she had left off—the business of living day to day in Cabot’s Cove.
(p.2) “Aging, I wrote” aptly describes the ways in which my personal and professional lives have found their way into this book. With an essential difference—unlike Jessica, who figured everything out in an hour, I’ve been struggling for forty-five years. And though I have taught and written about aging during most of this time and made sense for at least part of it, I cannot close the case and go about my business.
“Aging, I wrote” and went on to tell others what it was all about. I now look back over lecture notes and published works, recall my comments on student papers or process recordings, and wonder how I could have been so sure.
Aging, I wrote … is loss. And went on to tick off the ways. They ran so trippingly from the tongue and from the pen! Losses of self (cognitive, sensory, physical functioning). Losses of others (siblings, spouses, often children). Losses of role (worker, spouse, friend). Of course it would not do to leave it at that. So I went on to suggest ways in which professional workers could help their old clients stem the tide of time and went on to quote what others had said or written on the subject, adding a few observations of my own.
I tried to be true to practice experiences with clients and all I had learned from my mentors, to integrate new theoretical insights and empirical data while never devaluing the anomaly. I even included anecdotes that provided insight into the unique human being beneath the label.
Well and good for its time, but its time has passed—at least for me. Like old Mrs. Bates in Jane Austen’s Emma, who is “almost past everything but tea and quadrille,” I am past a lot of things that seemed necessary before. I now suit myself and, rethinking the issue of loss, have more questions than answers.
Longing for a range of perspectives on the experience I am going through, words that open me up to new ways of viewing the life I now live day by day, I turn to the authors quoted in these pages. They did not preach or teach. They simply mined their own lives to come up with a unique view of the aging experience, climbing a mountain of time, pausing on level ground to describe the view.
(p.3) The texts were selected by an “I” who became a gerontologist when the field was in its infancy and continued as it went through all manner of changes on its way to adulthood. Reflections on the texts were made by an “I” who passed from a young wife and mother to an old widowed grandmother—all the while practicing, teaching, and writing about what it is to be old.
Can one book really affect the course of a life? So many women felt that way that Betty Friedan followed her publication of The Feminine Mystique in 1963 with It Changed My Life in 1976 to document the societal shift that had taken place. I was one of those women. Even though Friedan described a generation ahead of my own—the post–World War II universe of large homes and families in the suburbs—aspects of what she famously described as “the problem with no name” had seeped into my own later, urban version.
In 1963, with a newborn son and a two-year-old daughter, I was not yet able to do anything but read. In retrospect, I was seeking what would later be termed a “Narrative Compass” on which to map out the next part of my life, which was, as yet, uncharted territory (Hearne and Trites 2009).
And the next six years, until my younger child, entered school, I read on, feverishly, about all the choices ahead of me. Novels by men and women, and the developing women’s movement, pointed to three possibilities; have an affair, get a job, go back to school. Infidelity? Fun to read about but a fantasy that had no relevance to my life. My husband, Roy, was (as he would remain for the many years until his death) the best. I did not need to sample the rest. A job? I was a typing demon who had even mastered the now archaic skill of Gregg shorthand, but the two years of secretarial work that marked the transition from college to motherhood was not what I wished to return to. School? Teaching and social work were the major choices open to women of the day. I was seeking an expansion of my daily rounds. Teaching struck me as a profession in which life would remain much the same—only with other people’s children substituted for my own. Social work was a chance to feed a throbbing curiosity about people and circumstances other than my own. It was an easy choice.
(p.4) In 1969 my son entered all-day kindergarten and Roy took a picture of him outside the school building—as he had for my daughter two years before. Then he drove downtown and took a picture of me in a miniskirt and fishnet stockings, standing in front of the Columbia University School of Social Work on my first day.
It was a heady time for social work education at Columbia University: the “War on Poverty” was on. There was money! Never before (or after) were such funds available for social programs in underserved communities. Never before (or after) were so many graduate school scholarships available for applicants from these communities. The classrooms had never seen so many men, so many older students, so many Black (not yet African American) and Puerto Rican (not yet Hispanic or Latino) students—most of whom brought firsthand knowledge of the clients and situations under discussion. Attention was drawn from the psychosocial problems of individuals to the inequities of society. Heady indeed! All that I had hoped for in expanding my understanding of the world.
New graduates flocked to employment in community-based facilities for youth and families, to drug treatment programs, to mental health clinics newly expanded to serve deinstitutionalized psychiatric patients.
And yet I chose to work with the aged. An esteemed professor questioned my decision. Fellow graduates echoed her view. Unlike those who “had their whole lives ahead of them,” the aged were limited by biological circumstance. They were unlikely to change. They were soon to die. There was nothing you could actually do with, or for, the old. With so many graduates concentrating on the cutting edge of practice, it seemed that I was coming in at the end of an era. In retrospect, I was a pioneer.
The study of aging was young in 1970. Children of the postwar decade (not yet Baby Boomers) had taken over Low Library at Columbia University, megaphones broadcasting their protests to the throng outside. They were so vigorous. Who could picture them as elderly, bent, depleting the budget of Social Security? Medicare and Medicaid were toddlers. SSI was not yet a twinkle in anyone’s eye. No one could imagine what these programs would grow up to be. No one could imagine aging as a field that (p.5) engaged mind as well as heart and hands, and as a field that would require the advanced skill set expected of today’s practitioners.
I wish I could say that deep altruistic motives prompted me; that empathy for the illnesses, disabilities, and indignities suffered by old people fueled my desire to make their last days better. I wish I could say I felt outrage at the lack of services available and saw my task as challenging an inadequate system of care. I even wish I could say that I recognized the Western world was at the very beginning of what later would be described as an “age wave” and decided that getting in on the ground floor would be a shrewd career move. All that came later.
Looking back, I see that my career choice was counterphobic. I became a social worker with the aged because I was afraid for my life. It seemed the very worst fate that could befall you—being old, in pain, facing death, outliving or wearing out the patience of those who once knew and loved you, cared for by strangers. The vicarious experience was to inoculate me against the full impact of the real thing when it came. I was packing a virtual doomsday kit—shoring up resources of information and insight to sustain me when I became one of them.
I began by making home visits through the length and breadth of Manhattan. From the Lower East Side to Harlem and Washington Heights. From the East River to the Hudson. From rooming houses to cramped single-room occupancies to once grand apartments where loose pieces of plaster hung in wide strips from the ceiling and rats and roaches ran free. My caseload was filled with a group of people particular to that time and place. Most had come to the city in the 1920s and ’30s. A few had moved from outlying neighborhoods as teenagers and never looked back. They came because they didn’t fit in anywhere else. Homosexual (not yet gay) men and women, dancers, musicians, artists, writers, immigrants from the rural South, Puerto Rico, and other countries who were unanchored from their communities of origin. People with physical characteristics or personal quirks that marked them as different in any crowd. They came to be themselves. And they had made their own, often highly idiosyncratic ways, independently, for decades. Now old, ailing, without family or friends to (p.6) call on for help, they became my clients. It was a time before funders or regulators were obsessed with “documentation” or fretted about “costs per unit.” We were free to visit weekly, sometimes to oversee home care or medical services but mostly “just” to talk.
In 2016 anyone as privileged as I was to meet these men and women would suggest documenting their lives. I picture their pride in showing the world what they had experienced. I imagine the camera slowly canvassing the room, surveying the memorabilia. I imagine the close-ups of their faces and their hands as they explained each piece. That did not happen. They live on only within me.
After a few years I began to work in a large, multilevel, nonprofit nursing home. Although the home was not segregated, it drew its residents from the neighborhood—a rapidly deteriorating section of the Bronx in which primarily Jewish residents had settled in the 1930s and 1940s. What was different from my previous caseload were the stories of my clients’ earlier lives; so similar that I could recite the script along with them. Most had emigrated from Eastern Europe as teenagers. Work as cutters and packers in the garment trade, civil service, or small businesses marked the men. The women (who outnumbered the men four to one) had spent a few years as “stitchers” until they married and gave birth to the two children who were now doctors, lawyers, or teachers living in the suburbs.
The more able residents sat in chairs lining the lobby, watching staff pass by—waiting for, wanting, just a word, just a look of recognition. When mealtime was announced, they rose with difficulty, tightly grasping walkers or canes. At night I dreamed of them, outstretched arms, hands like hooks reaching out to me, pulling me close. On weekends I attended dance performances—needing to see bodies in effortless motion, bodies as more than sacks of pain.
The upstairs units—which I thought of as the circles of Dante’s Hell—were stratified by level of care need. The worst was the floor of women with dementia: the wails of “Mama” coming from one; another who kept tearing off her clothes. Finding the person within the mask of age was often impossible. Still I tried. In my third year of practice I became a clinical preceptor, (p.7) supervising students for the three days a week that they spent at the nursing home, trying to teach what I was just learning for myself.
When I had a free moment—not taking care of clients, students, parents in Boston, or husband and children in New York—I continued to read. It was a bountiful time for fiction, written by women close to my own age: Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex–Prom Queen, Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Along with the poetry of Rich and polemic writing of Friedan and Steinem, the imagined and real lives I read about challenged previous assumptions about how I could be in the world.
The memoir boom—which seems in retrospect to have been always with us—was not to begin in earnest until the 1980s, but biographies and autobiographies were my readings of choice. Jill Ker Conway was to explain why:
The satisfaction comes from being allowed inside the experience of another person who really lived and who tells about experiences which did in fact occur. In this way the lost suspension of disbelief disappears and the reader is able to try on the experience of another, just as one would try on a dress or a suit of clothes, to see what the image in the mirror looks like. We like to try on new identities because our own crave the confirmation of like experience, or the enlargement or transformation which can come from viewing a similar experience from a different perspective.
Reading fiction and nonfiction, it was not the words but the music, the implicit “here I am and this is what I think,” that proved transformative. I discovered that I had ideas of my own and unimagined joy in matching words to thoughts. I became a new persona requiring a new name: Ann Burack-Weiss. It was a copycat move (many women were doing it those days) yet one that yielded immediate and unforeseen consequences.
Folding the Ann Burack of Boston who was her parents’ daughter into the Ann Weiss of New York who was her husband’s wife and children’s (p.8) mother and coming up with a new identity was bracing. “Finding one’s voice” has become a cliché, but indeed there is no other expression for becoming a person in one’s own right. The women I read then, many of whom have grown old along with me, gave me that gift.
By 1980 I had found my niche: teaching and writing about clinical social work, slowly, though never fully, leaving direct practice behind. I was to continue for four decades with the field of aging as a central focus.
Until the early 1980s most of the knowledge for practice came from practice itself. There was some research, to be sure; however, the evidence was either anecdotal or based on small studies of elders whose difficulties had brought them to the attention of the health or social service system. So it is no surprise that they were heavily weighted toward a view of aging as a time of unmitigated decline.
There was theory as well—notions about the nature of the aging process that leaned heavily on the idea of life as a series of “stages.” Everyone studied Erik Erikson’s eight tasks of psychosocial development across the life cycle, the last of which was attaining “Ego Integrity vs. Ego Despair.” Classified by later critics as a “grand” theory or “metanarrative,” the view was marked by the broad brush with which it painted the aging experience, rendering it as universal across cultures and classes and undifferentiated for women and men, or even for different ages within the spectrum from sixty to one hundred or more.
As a clinician I had learned most from the “practice wisdom” of supervisors who taught me how to observe, listen to, and understand what clients told me. It was clear from the start that the problems of old people could not be categorized as either “concrete” (accessing services such as meals-on-wheels or home care) or “counseling” (adapting to the losses and changes of late life or struggling with issues left over from earlier years). Usually they were a combination of both. Most surprising to my younger self was the discovery that many seemingly helpless clients had psychic strengths with which to meet the challenges of advanced age. Most had lived through poverty and/or immigration to a city far beyond the place of their birth. All had lived through two world wars and the Great Depression. They had coped with traumatic losses and unanticipated changes in the past and (p.9) would have continued to do so if they had not outlived the financial and human resources necessary for survival. Helping clients recall the strategies that had worked in earlier years and providing them with the support to mobilize and use what remained to them were often all that was needed.
It was how I practiced and what I began teaching. With the exception of Creative Approaches to Casework with the Aging (Wasser 1966), the social work literature on aging was slim. To amplify it, the still small but growing cadre of social work professors interested in teaching about the last stages of life adapted the generic social work practice literature of the day. In an effort to put down all that we had learned, a coauthor and I wrote Social Work Practice with the Frail Elderly and Their Families: The Auxiliary Function Model (Silverstone & Burack-Weiss 1983). There is much I would change if writing it today; however, the model itself continues to resonate. The metaphor of an auxiliary system that is activated when standard resources fail and shuts off when they return responds to the universal fear that dependence on others (however limited or temporary) is but a step on the slippery slope to complete ceding of one’s autonomy.
The book and the model it promoted was adopted as a practice text in several schools of social work, but the times were already changing. The societal implications of the aging of the population had finally dawned on funders and researchers. Less attention was being paid to the psychosocial needs of old people and a greater emphasis was placed on the burden of caring for them.
Funders prodded researchers to find out more about what the population needed help with, who would provide it, and how much it would cost. Rigorously designed and analyzed quantitative studies became the universally accepted method of knowledge building, and it was this received knowledge—perceived as objective and value free—that I was expected to teach.
The obvious fact that age is correlated with health problems, and its corollary, that health problems more often than not result in diminishment of functioning and dependence on others, had previously been acknowledged as but one facet of the aging experience. Now it overshadowed all else. Because research measured care needs, it validated a decline model of (p.10) aging. And because it sought commonalities rather than differences among older adults, it reified a “one-size-fits-all” approach to meeting their needs. It was not long before research vocabulary and concepts began to permeate practice, which, along with the computerization of client information, was to have long-lasting effects.
Activities of Daily Living (ADL), originally developed as a research scale, soon infiltrated clinical practice. Gathering information on personal ADL (eating, bathing, dressing, toileting) and instrumental ADL (cooking, laundry, bill paying, travel) became the gold standard of client assessment. I recall reading a process recording in which a puzzled ninety-two-year-old woman was asked, “Who helps you with your activities of daily living?” The idea that the client might not view the round of her existence quite that way came as a shock to the student!
Only a decade before, everyone viewed clinical practice with the aged as a process of exploration: individualization was valued. “What is unique about this client?” I would ask students. “Tell me how she looks.” “Speak to me in her voice.” “If she had a theme song, what would it be?”
Now, back at their field placements, agency supervisors were instructing students on how to best get clients to give the information that would allow them to complete the ADL form: a list of needs in column A to be matched with services in column B. In essence the form asked: what everyday tasks can you do for yourself and what do we have to do for you? The implicit message of the form was not lost on clients or social workers. Clients were seen as a burden; their care needs were all that mattered. Facts were important, not thoughts or feelings. The present—not the past or the future—was all that mattered.
Closely allied was the birth of “case management”—a way of addressing the problems uncovered by an ADL assessment. This often required coordinating services from the “formal system” (social and health care providers) and the “informal system” (family and friends). Because services were expensive and often difficult to access, an employee of a community agency (sometimes but not always a professional social worker) was assigned the title of “case manager” and charged with the responsibility of discerning care needs and providing services in the most cost-effective manner.
(p.11) By the late 1980s the gerontological literature we were expected to assign to students was in sync with what was going on in the field. Quantitative research was all that garnered respect. Older people speaking of their own experiences might produce phrases to enliven a technical article, but what they had to say was dismissed as anecdotal evidence of no heuristic importance.
The proposal for my doctoral dissertation—open-ended interviews with older adults to discover how they had adapted to vision loss—was denied. Although I went along, producing a quantitative study of the same topic, the process itself confirmed my belief that what interested me most about the aging process was not to be found in statistical spreadsheets.
I recall a panel in Washington, D.C., at which I was asked to present “the consumer’s view” of case management as a follow-up to panelists representing the policy and programmatic views. I recognized that I was asked because of my identification as a practitioner but could not resist beginning with the question of why they had not invited a “real” consumer. I wondered aloud if it was because an actual recipient of services would speak at length about her personal situation, “anecdotal” information that would not meet the standards of a professional conference, and went on to give examples of the idiosyncratic ways in which my clients receiving case management services differed from the ones the models were designed for. I was not asked to speak to that group again.
Everything I wrote or taught during that time underscored the necessity of individualizing the older person that was the antithesis of gerontological research and the soul of gerontological practice. Meanwhile, with the gulf between the content I was expected to teach about aging (or, for that matter, other populations where professional writing took a similar turn) and the research literature of approved syllabi and what I felt to be important growing ever wider, I turned to the popular press to supplement the reading list.
Most interesting to me were published, book-length memoirs of ill or disabled individuals and their caregivers. (“Published” because they were widely available and usually well written; “book-length” because they allowed the author space to develop the experience in all its complexity, richness, and personal style.)
(p.12) My quest for teaching texts soon led to obsessive reading of over a hundred memoirs. The original plan—to write a book that compared the research literature on caregiving with the authors’ experiences and to identify the ways in which “real life” and statistical portrayals of it differed—foundered and soon died. I hit an impasse that was to last almost a decade—not of “comparing apples and oranges” but of comparing widely different worldviews proceeding from widely different premises.
How was I to know that what I was reading was not “real life” but the author’s version of his or her experience, a “story” or “narrative” that had its own validity but belonged to a totally different domain of analysis?
Strange as it now seems, I was unaware that there was a movement so allied to my own thoughts taking place outside of the realm of health and social services in which I spent my professional life. I was to learn by the simultaneous entry of two new bodies of knowledge in my life: critical gerontology and narrative theory.
Critical gerontology, an umbrella term encompassing a variety of post-structural, postmodern approaches to studying the aging experience, arose in academia in the late 1980s and ’90s, alongside and in opposition to the quantitative view that had invaded the professional practice literature. With a shared perspective that all knowledge is metaphorical, historical, and contextual, scholars of many disciplines were united in forging new territory, uncovering the assumptions about older people intrinsic to previously unquestioned ideas.
I doubt if Betty Friedan identified herself with any academic trend, but she held the critical banner high. She was a familiar figure on the Columbia University campus in the 1980s, researching The Fountain of Age (1993), the book that was expected to do for the old what The Feminine Mystique had done for women—alert the world to the stifled potential of individuals confined to limiting social roles.
Friedan was present at every lecture concerned with aging. First at the microphone during the discussion period, she had neither question nor comment on the topic of the day. Rather, she accused professional experts of promoting a deterministic, deficit view that did not recognize the strengths (p.13) inherent in old age. Her voice may have been strident and her speech often rambling, but her reputation and passion commanded respect.
The Fountain of Age expanded on Friedan’s belief that those who study the old (as those who once studied women) first construct identities for them and then reify these identities through their research questions. De Beauvoir had advanced the belief years before (1973). What was new was an emphasis on the positive—example after example of old people who lived productively and creatively until their last years when they succumbed to what had come to be known as a “good death.”
The book garnered positive reviews but nowhere near the interest of The Feminine Mystique. I think the flaw was drawing parallels between two dissimilar situations. “The personal is political” rang true for women. Once the finite expectations of who they could be and what they could do were removed, women were to demonstrate that they could excel in areas of life that had previously been unthinkable for them.
The case is different for the old. No matter how many opportunities are open to them or how many second and third careers they try, time is not on their side. Friedan’s glossing over the reality of decline and death, her focus on the wonders old people could achieve if society only changed its views and policies, lacked face validity.
The few gerontologists who were at the vanguard of the feminist movement have grappled with the essential dissonance in different ways. All begin with lamenting the absence of interest in aging among the feminist researchers and activists they have worked alongside of for years.
Some continue the lament with a return to a familiar tack of analyzing language as an indicator of societal attitudes. In an introduction to the edited collection Age Matters: Re-Aligning Feminist Thinking, Calasanti and Slevin write:
Feminists often exclude old people both in their choice of research questions and in their theoretical approaches. They often write or say “older” rather than “old” to avoid the negativity of the latter. They may see old age as a social construction and take it as a sign of women’s inequality that they (p.14) are denigrated as “old” before men are, but we do not often question the stigma affixed to old age. We don’t ask why it seems denigrating to label someone as “old.” Feminists have analyzed how terms related to girls and women, such as “sissy” and “girly,” are used to put men and boys down and reinforce women’s inferiority. Yet we have not considered the age relations that use these terms to keep old and young groups in their respective places.
Others look to mythology for clues as to what opportunities the final stage of life might hold for women. Ray (2004:120) summarizes the feminist literature on the subject. She cites three archetypes—the virgin (creation), the mother (preservation), and the crone (destruction)—that supposedly work in the unconscious life. She goes on to note that in matriarchal culture “crone” meant “queen,” a time of coming into one’s own authority: “While the virgin’s focus is personal, and the mother’s focus is interpersonal, the crone’s focus is personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal … to call forth the crone in ourselves and the culture is to ‘usher in another round of consciousness raising,’ which challenges negative stereotypes of older women and emphasizes women’s development over the entire life course.”
Cruikshank (2003) observes that old women are noticeably missing from feminist studies, suggesting several reasons: reluctance of women to identify themselves with their mothers; academic gerontology as a relatively small field; and feminists not wanting to see themselves in their bodies. She concludes that aging is such an untrendy topic that even feminist students and teachers are reluctant to pursue it.
Cruikshank returns to the theme six years later, continuing to lament the lack of interest in aging, and expressing the wish that a time will come when “the ‘old’ in women’s studies will no longer mean fifty and menopause and the great diversity among women over sixty-five and seventy will be acknowledged” (2009:181). She goes on to add: “Narratives are the heart of feminist gerontology and should count as gerontological knowledge. Whether fictional or autobiographical or in the form of oral histories, they provide the nuance, complexity, contradiction, and incongruities of old women’s lives that social science research often misses” (197).
(p.15) Narrative understanding was exactly what I was after when, in 2000, at the age of sixty-four, I—perhaps the oldest teaching assistant in history—read and struggled with new concepts right along with the students in Murray Nossel’s Life Histories and Narratives class at the Columbia School of Social Work.
The contrast between the students in that class and the students I had sat beside thirty years before could not have been more apparent. The interest in social action and change had dissipated along with the public enthusiasm and funding for progressive programs. There were fewer scholarships available for students unable to afford the now astronomical tuition. There were fewer men, fewer older students, and, perhaps most significant, feminism had opened other educational and career possibilities for women out to change the world. Many who would previously have chosen social work were now going into law, medicine, or other professions that seemed to promise wider opportunities.
Now—along with an unprecedented number of international students—there was a large cohort of young, middle-class women who—like the students of the 1940s and ’50s who had preceded my time in the master’s program—were primarily interested in becoming mental health clinicians.
The study of narrative provided gifts for me as well as for them. Although I had prided myself at listening attentively to client stories, readings in literary theory deepened my understanding. I learned to question the relationship between the telling and the told, to look at the structure of a text, to notice what was left unsaid and so much else! The process was the first step in my new journey. It resulted in my teaching the course myself for several years and the 2006 publication of The Caregiver’s Tale: Loss and Renewal in Memoirs of Family Life.
What to do next? I had retired from classroom teaching and continued with a small clinical practice with older women and began reading and collecting excerpts from the life writing of what I thought of as the Lionesses, noted woman authors who had grown old in print. Or perhaps I should call them my Lionesses—women I had been reading since the days before I went back to school, the days when I was seeking examples of what women (p.16) could be and do in the world. Because my Lionesses were a literate lot, they quoted those who influenced them and my sample snowballed. A few choices came later—triggered by a review here, a recommendation there—but overall the sample remained as it started: a highly idiosyncratic collection that, in the words of Judith Matlack, a dearly remembered English professor, “spoke to my condition.” (One discovery of my reading was that Matlack was recalled by May Sarton—one of my cherished Lionesses—as the great love of her life. Such are the unanticipated rewards of narrative research!)
I was working in the home office in which I now sit. My husband, Roy, had a desk at the other side of the room, practicing law on a part-time basis since a heart attack and stroke had left him with a language deficit and physically weakened. At his request, I checked all his written work for tense and spelling. I knew this confrontation with his loss was difficult and tried to change as little as I could. When several errors appeared in one document, I overlooked a few, hoping the reader would see them as typos. “Everyone makes mistakes,” I would say when Roy discovered a mistake on his own. I pretended it was no big deal. He pretended to believe me.
We stopped work periodically, as we always had, for a walk, a movie, a restaurant lunch; but as the years passed, we were out for shorter times, closer to home. Everything toned down, muted. But still good. Roy was alive. He was here.
By March 12, 2010, half the “Lioness book” was written. Topical chapters consisted of passages reflecting what many authors had written on the problem—with the barest of my own commentary. It was an interesting project but one with no sense of urgency attached. It was a Friday and I went out to do a home visit at 5:00. I returned at 8:15 to see that Roy had left half of the supper I had left for him on the kitchen counter. Climbing the stairs, I half knew what I would find. Roy’s body was lying on the bed, but the man I had loved, who had loved me, for all my adult life was nowhere to be found.
I stopped caring but not living. I stopped writing but not reading. I turned again and again to the Lionesses. I carried their words with me as I walked the streets and sat in the parks of Manhattan. They accompanied (p.17) me to the greenmarket, sat beside me on the diner stool. They popped out when I was with others. At lunch with a close friend or in a chat with a colleague after a meeting, I found myself speaking of, sometimes quoting, their words. Often I would wonder: What would they think about what I am now going through? What would they advise me to do?
I was in limbo until in 2011 I was asked to teach in the MS Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia. My role in the program was to help students in the practicum acquire the basic group work skills necessary to running close reading and reflective writing groups. Once again, I learned as I taught. I learned about the selection and analysis of “texts” (poems or paragraphs, art or music) that evoke responses that often surprise the readers. I learned about facilitating discussions of these responses. I learned about designing and responding to “prompts” (“write about a time when”) that capture the often inchoate thoughts and feelings engendered by the reading and discussion.
And slowly the cloud over me lifted. I returned to the Lionesses with a new plan, I would pull Colette or Fisher or Sarton from my bookshelf, select a passage I had read, and design myself a prompt. So the book evolved from a collection to a conversation with friends I never met. As Nancy Miller wrote, “We read the lives of others to figure out how to make sense of our own, and in the process we also admit to our wishes for a future” (2002:137).
Taking out the virtual doomsday kit I had begun many decades ago and rifling through its contents, I find that I had packed wrong. Not obviously wrong—as in bringing ski gear to the tropics—but in missing the essential nuance. I had packed sneakers to climb Mount Everest. I had not recognized that the mountain of age was so steep, so rocky, had so many different climates, and required reinforced footwear and heavy equipment. I had not anticipated the many meanings aging could hold for an old woman and what inner resources she needed to survive an avalanche of losses. The Lionesses became my Sherpas, their words my twenty-third psalm. (p.18)