Here’s something about me: I love interacting with old people. If I get invited to a gathering, you’ll always see me talking to the older crowd. Being someone who was raised by her grandparents, I always had an appreciation for the stories they had to share and the memories they had collected. As a kid, listening to them, it gave me a desire to want to grow old myself —of course, without having a real awareness or ability to understand the full implications of getting old and dealing with what would lie ahead in life.
When I was in my teens, I volunteered at a home for the elderly near where I lived. I gained a lot from that experience. I learned about the power of companionship and the importance of being a good listener. These residents built an environment for themselves, with what they had. Some demanded more than others. I saw that it was difficult for some of them to accept their reality. And others adjusted just fine. Just like everybody else.
I recall this very old man who always called me “kiddo.” I didn’t mind it. In fact, I liked it. At the time. I felt like a kid then anyway, despite my challenging life circumstances at the time. (Struggling to adjust to being brought to the United States to live when I was a teenager.)
That was a long time ago. Now, recently, someone else called me “kiddo.” I felt very different about it this time. The name suddenly wasn’t fitting anymore. This time, it hit me hard and it became clear that, deep down, I feel really old. Mostly because of everything I’ve been through related to my health.
“I am older than you think,” I said to the 60-something year old guy who called me kiddo. He laughed and asked, “how so?” “Do we really need to get into the details?” I replied with a forced smile. When he saw the tired look on my face he realized what I meant. Then, we proceeded to talk about something else. The guy is not totally aware of my hardships but he knows about my cancer diagnosis and the pain I continue to endure.
Perhaps I am overly sensitive. I am sure the guy only meant I was much younger than he was when he called me “kiddo.” And maybe he even sees himself as a really old man compared to me. But the thing is, I am no kiddo anymore. And more than ever, I am very aware of what lies ahead. I have very complex decisions to make about my life – some that probably people his age might never have had to make, not under the same circumstances at least.
And here’s another thing: I keep losing friends. Frequently. I realized recently that I am a lot like my fiance’s parents — who are over 70 and start every day looking in the obituaries to see who they know. In a way, I’m already doing that myself — keeping track of patients I’ve come to care for or reading about all the other bad things that happened in the world over night, as soon as I wake up each day. And yes, I am in cancerland, where, unfortunately, bad news is expected. Not to mention, I actually need an oncologist – in my 30’s. It still sounds surreal to me. This ain’t no kiddo’s life!
All this cancer experience has aged me, both physically and mentally. And real fast, too.
In a way, I feel a lot like those old people from the home I volunteered at. I am still trying to adjust to my reality — how long does it freaking take? Although I am not the same age as these elderly people were, I still feel pretty beat up. But I am lucky to have companionship and a great listener: my fiancé who is also my caregiver. He puts up with all my demands and needs. And though he’s older than I, he never calls me kiddo — although he admits that he has said it, maybe with envy, to a few people who strike him as young and free and unburdened. I confess I’ve felt the same way too.
I wish I felt like a kiddo again. I mean, I still want to grow old, but at a much slower pace.