So as you probably know, both David Bowie and Alan Rickman died last week, and the news hit me harder than I expected. Perhaps it’s because in both cases, the news came to everyone, except those very close to them, as a shock. Perhaps it’s because several friends’ parents or parents-in-law have died recently. All I know is that after I’d put our Offpsring to bed, on the evening after I’d heard about Bowie’s death, I was clearing up the plates and setting the dishwasher going, and I found myself holding back tears. And then I realised why.
My elders are dying, and I’m not ready.
We’re never ready, are we? Death always comes as a surprise, even when it’s expected. But now my generation is of the age where the elders are getting older. They’re in their winter years. Even the healthiest of them can’t live forever. And it’s not just that I don’t want them to die because I’ll miss them—of course, that’s the reason I want them to stay alive! But it’s also that, once they are gone, the baton is passed. It’s our turn. It might be some years yet, but it’s coming sooner than I had expected. My generation will be the elders.
Doesn’t that seem ridiculous? How are we going to possibly pull that off? Being an elder implies wisdom, clarity, measured response. And all of that seems very much out of reach to me.
Perhaps part of my reluctance to step up to such a position is that in Western society, we lack a tradition of measuring and naming age. You are a child until you turn eighteen, at which point you become an adult. But the reality is that we are maturing all the time. Even as elderly people, we can learn and change our minds, just as we can as children, teenagers and younger adults. There are different stages of adulthood. As a young adult, we’re still finding out what we believe. We’re a combination of optimism, high energy, and foolhardiness. As we age, we find more focus, we (hopefully!) become more balanced. An adult of twenty is different to one of twenty-five, forty or sixty. Of course we know that, but it’s unspoken truth, and I can’t help wondering if our cultural obsession with staying or appearing young is not only unhealthy for our elderly—after all, older people are often ignored and dismissed simply due to their age—but also for those of us who are yet to reach old age.
I remember talking to an Aboriginal classmate when we were both studying to become teachers. She was older than I was, perhaps in her late thirties or early forties, and she was lamenting the fact that she had gone from being known as ‘sister’ to being called ‘auntie’. ‘I’m so not ready to be ‘Auntie’!’ she cringed, but she laughed about it, too. Because ageing is inevitable.
My classmate was referring to the custom where Aboriginal people often call others their appropriate relationship name, eg, sister, auntie, grandmother. As a younger woman, she’d been known as ‘sister’ by those of a similar age to her. Now she was older, the younger generation rightly called her ‘auntie’, as a sign of showing their age relationship to one another. And she wasn’t ready for it. Still, it was a reminder. You are older now. With that, comes responsibility and hopefully, respect. The name you are called is a reminder that your role is changing.
But in my culture, there is no reminder. I shrug off the idea of titles. Our Offspring’s friends call me ‘Rebecca’ rather than ‘Auntie’ or my title and last name. Even as a teacher, I found it hard to introduce myself as ‘Ms’ rather than my first name (although I do understand the reason for such formalities, and valued them in the classroom).
I wonder, if we were to call each other a relationship name, how it would change our experience of ageing, and how we relate to one another? How would I feel, changing from ‘sister’ to ‘auntie’? How would I feel, moving from ‘auntie’ to ‘grandmother’? Rather than avoiding the idea of ageing, would it help to prepare us for the time when we need to step up, and become the elders? Would it perhaps help emphasise the natural way in which we slowly gain wisdom, and learn from our mistakes, in order to share our knowledge with the younger generations—if, of course, they would listen?
As hopeless and devastating as it feels to bury our elders, and as frightening as it is, to know that we are looking to step into those very large shoes, perhaps we can take heart at the fact that they were like us once. As we look up to them, it’s hard to imagine they were ever anything but the fabulous, brave, inspirational beings that they were, for so many years until they died, but it’s comforting to note that they almost certainly shared the same doubts, and I’m sure, held the same fears as to how to live up to the legacy of their elders, too. I’d like to think that if I’m anywhere near as amazing at sixty-nine as so many of the elders I admire, then I’ll be content with my achievements.