When I was little, every time we would head back home after visiting my grandparents, my grandfather would come out into the driveway as we packed ourselves into the car, and get into his racing stance. He would do stretches, get down in a start position with his legs staggered and his arms up, a look of fierce determination on his face. We would watch him from the car, windows rolled down, dissolving into fits of giggles as if it were the first time we’d ever seen it before. When the car would pull out of the driveway and start down the street, he would take off, running next to us, pumping his arms, looking over at us every few seconds, with an expression of fury that the car seemed to be beating him in the race. He didn’t just take a few steps and then give up the joke, either—he usually stayed alongside the car until the end of the street, at which point we’d twist all the way around to wave to him out of the back window, where we could see him pretending to be bent over, defeated, and out of breath. He did this every time we came to visit throughout our childhood and long past it, and somehow, even though we knew it was coming, we were always excited about it as we got into the car.
My grandfather hasn’t run alongside the car in years when we go to visit him and my grandmother in New Hampshire for Easter, and I haven’t thought about it in about as much time. He has spent the previous month suffering from shingles, taking high doses of medication to mitigate the pain he is experiencing. He is constantly frustrated–he can no longer drive because of the medication, and he is unable to make his weekly spin and strength training classes at the gym. Everything he is used to, everything that makes up his life, has been taken away from him. He is confined to the house, debilitated and discouraged.
He is unrecognizable, a shadow of himself. He nods off at the table, gushes nonsensically, and hardly touches his dinner. Before I leave, I go upstairs to his room to say goodbye, where he has retreated to take a nap. My grandmother goes in first, to wake him. As I round the corner of the top of the stairs, I catch a glimpse of him, lying in bed in his bathrobe, on top of the covers, unmoving. My grandmother tries to rouse him to say goodbye, but he is somewhere else, mumbling, not recognizing me. He is eighty-two years old and I have not thought of him as old until this exact moment.
When I pull out of the driveway a few minutes later, I can’t help but picture him standing out on the street, getting ready to run alongside my car. The disparity between this familiar image and what I have just seen moments before is jarring, is something that stays with me the whole way home.
We are fooling ourselves if we think that there is an age where things settle, where we can expect circumstances to remain more or less the same. It is an easy to get lulled into a routine, to cling to the way things are at any given time and expect them or wish them to continue. But we are never safe, we are never at a point where we’ve put the changing behind us, or where we haven’t hit it yet. It comes whenever it wants, and living with any sense of rigidity, any insistence on a status quo will only lead to frantic, helpless panic when we realize that nothing ever stays the same.
I sit on the floor of my childhood room and I am not safe from it either. I have spent the two years since graduating college in three different countries and soon to be four U.S. states. The last eight months in Maine are the longest I’ve stayed in one place, and looking back now at the several month chunks doing different things in different places feels like just a long string of hellos and goodbyes, of acclimation and detachment, of settling in and transitioning out. Even now, looking around to identify what I will be taking with me to Colorado and what I will leave behind, I have not gotten used to it. It has not gotten easier. I have become attached to these circumstances and the upcoming change brings me to that frantic, helpless panic place.
Later in the evening on Easter, Pop-Pop is rushed to the hospital after being incoherent for hours. It is determined that he has been over-medicated for his shingles and his heart has suffered from the stress. He is taken to the emergency room, tests are run, and he is transferred to the ICU, where he has his vitals monitored and waits for his fever to go down. He stays there for days until he is finally discharged to a rehabilitation center for the elderly in order to do physical therapy and begin to heal. During this time, my mother reports that he continually expresses a desire for things to go back to the way they were, when he was healthy and mobile and fine. He sits in a hospital bed hooked up to machines and pines for a reality that no longer exists.
I took an introduction to Buddhism class in college right during the time when I was convinced that I never wanted to graduate. Everything was exactly the way I wanted it to be–I lived with all my friends, Chicago was the greatest city in the world, and I wanted to hold onto it all forever. I sat in a giant, gorgeously remodeled lecture hall and listened to the professor identify the four noble truths of Buddhism, a religion that, like almost all others, I felt fairly disconnected with. One of the truths that stuck out as particularly absurd to me was the notion that attachment causes suffering. It made sense, of course, but the idea of going through life without attachments seemed equally, if not more, unpleasant.
But I realized later that there are different kinds of attachments, some of which are worth the inevitable suffering they will incur, and some of which we need to let go of once and for all. Going through life without attaching yourself to other humans seems like a shortcut to suffering, and has been proven by many scientific studies to be highly linked to depression. It is an immutable fact that we will have to suffer through the death of every human we ever love, or they will have to suffer through ours. And yet few would argue that it is just better to attach yourself to no one. Love is almost always worth the inevitable suffering.
Attaching ourselves to circumstances, however, is where we bring suffering upon ourselves that is often not worth it. Things are constantly moving and shifting, and deciding that any one moment in time that the way things are is the only way we will be happy is asking to suffer. Be happy in your circumstances, but accept that they might change at any moment. Whether those circumstances have to do with a living situation, a job, a relationship status, a mood, the weather–they are all mutable. The only guarantee is that there is no guarantee. And when you find yourself in circumstances entirely different from what you had known, or what you were expecting, rather than fruitlessly agonizing over what you have lost, try to accept what is.
A month after being admitted to the rehab center, my grandfather is discharged and returns home with my grandmother. When I speak with him on the the phone that first night home, he has just taken a shower and gotten dressed without help, and I can hear the joy and relief in his voice. He is not thinking of the way things were, of the way things used to be, he is simply grateful for his present circumstances, that he is home and can do things like take a shower in his own bathroom and sit with my grandmother at the kitchen table. He tells me that he is going to follow the doctor’s instructions carefully, that he is going to take his time, that he is going to accept what he now can and cannot do. He is going to accept his current reality and live within it.
Change is something that is always coming, whether we are given advance warning or not. Sometimes it comes all at once, out of the blue, like a shingles diagnosis or a last minute trip to the emergency room, and other times it looms in front of us, like an impending cross-country move. But either way, it comes. We have to learn to control what we can, to adapt, to look at the shift as an opportunity rather than a loss. The way things are is only moments away from being the way things were, and the way things will be is just around the corner. The truth of that is fixed, but our reaction doesn’t have to be.
I struggle with that as I sit on the floor of my room, setting aside one bag of clothes and then stopping, thinking that maybe if my room looks like it always does then things will stay like they are, trying to ignore the change that is coming right at me, that has been approaching for months. I can panic all I want and that doesn’t slow time down, it doesn’t revert things back to a prior state. I can wait until the last minute to pack my things, but I will still have to pack them. Rather than clinging to the present I should exist in it, rather than dreading the future I should prepare to greet it.
When I was a child and living far away from my grandparents, they would call on the phone every so often to talk to me. I would play a game on the phone where I would pick a place in their house and tell them to go there. The places ranged from under the table, to behind the couch, to upstairs near the big plant in the hallway. I would instruct my grandparents to go there, wait a few seconds and then ask “Are you there??” into the phone. My grandmother would be on the telephone in the kitchen and my grandfather would have the cordless, and I would later find out that while my grandmother would enthusiastically confirm that she was, in fact, sitting under the table, my grandfather would actually go exactly where I told him. He went and sat under the table, went and hid behind the couch, went and stood near the plant in the hallway, just because I asked him to. He was the kind of grandfather who would go wherever his three year old granddaughter told him to over the phone, even though there was no way of her knowing that he hadn’t done it.
He might not be able to crawl under the kitchen table now and I would not get on the phone and ask him to. He is not in his sixties and I am not three years old. The times have changed, the situation has shifted, the reality we live in is not what it was before and it never will be again. But that doesn’t have to be a tragedy. He is still my grandfather and I am still his granddaughter. And both of us, experiencing our own lives change, can choose to detach from what was, can open up to what is and what will be, and can embrace the beauty that is present in our circumstances, that may look and sound and feel different than what we’re used to, but that is absolutely everywhere.