Saturday 4 May 2013

Orangeberry Book of the Day - Greedy for Life: A Memoir on Aging with Gratitude by Lori Stevic-Rust (Excerpt)

1clip_image001My Beginning and Her Near End

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.”


I looked at the clock for probably the fifteenth time already, and it was only 9:30 a.m. Traffic this morning was not that heavy, and I got to the office with time to spare; and yet I was already falling behind in the schedule. Where does the time go? I find myself frequently longing for more time. Time to complete what I need to do and often wishing for excess to do the things I really want to do.

What a strange phenomenon, time. It seems to be the one thing we all wish we had more of, but yet we are not always certain what to do with it when we have it. As a child and adolescent, time seemed to move so slowly. Those big events that I put on my calendar, such as homecoming, prom, graduation, and my birthdays, all seemed to take so long to arrive.

Now here I sit with time moving at warped speed, with events, chores, activities, and tasks zipping by me with more being added and never enough time to complete them all. Children growing, wrinkles developing, and what is happening to my hair…more grays. Need to make time for more hair color.

I packed up my briefcase with my unfinished tasks in the bag to be transported home with the fantasy that I may do some work when I returned home. But most likely I would end up transporting the same work back to the office tomorrow to add to the rotating to-do list. Feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, I returned home at 7:05 p.m. (yes, I looked at the clock again). I was greeted by my grandmother, who was sitting on the couch in the spot I had left her earlier that morning at about a quarter to seven.

Growing up, we called her Gram, but after the great-grandchildren were born, they started to call her Nana. The name stuck for all of us. Nana, or Emily Bernice Sitosky Serian, is a beautiful blue-eyed Polish woman. While her eyes are striking, it is her smile that draws you to her. The warmth of her thoughts radiates through her smile. When she laughs, her mouth is open wide without embarrassment as the sounds come from deep within. That same mouth can smile with pride, showing softness around the corners and with a gentle turning up of the lower lip her mouth reveals comfort and compassion during periods of sadness. Ironically, she is most self-conscious about her mouth, particularly the deformity of her upper lip. The scar she tries to hide with lipstick has been with her since her baptism day. Her godmother had pinned the collar of her blouse together with straight pins, apparently a common practice among women back then, and during the baptismal service, she picked Nana up and put her over her shoulder to comfort her. The straight pin went deep into Nana’s upper lip, and without antibiotics, it became infected. The doctor cut the infected area away, leaving a missing piece in her upper lip.

Today Nana stands about five feet, even with her shoes. She has lost several inches over the years, thanks to her severe osteoporosis, which has left her with a significant arch to her upper back. At five foot three I feel very tall next to her. I brag about it. She reminds me that her excuse is osteoporosis, what is mine? But she can boast about her incredible skin. It is soft, light in color, even in tone, with only a few wrinkles near her mouth. Her eyes reveal the path of her years of laughing and smiling. She attributes the integrity of her skin to the years of buying expensive and exotic face moisturizers, which she still uses today. In fact, her one and only visible age spot seems out of place on her face. When she notices it in the mirror, it annoys her, but she begrudgingly admits that, “One ain’t so bad for a one-hundred-year-old lady.” That’s right. Nana just turned one hundred years old.

While her face does not reveal her age, her hands do. Physically they are smaller, more fragile, with almost transparent skin revealing the blue lines of her veins. The joints in her hand have begun to curve under, creating a closed appearance. They look frail. But when I watch her use them, they are the same hands I remember from when I was a child. They reveal a lifetime of hard work. Below the paper-thin skin there are remnants of the strong and sturdy muscles that once worked the family farm. Her chores as a young girl on the farm were every bit as physical as those of her brothers, including milking cows and plowing the crops. Then of course there is my personal favorite childhood story she would tell about her responsibility for preparing the chicken for the family dinner. This lovely mealtime preparation began with her selecting the chicken from the coup, chasing it around in the yard, then “twirling” it until she could successfully snap its neck. This was followed by chopping off its head and pulling out the feathers before handing it off to her mother to cook. True story. We stopped letting Nana tell bedtime stories to the great-grandchildren.

Her hands not only worked the farm as a child, but also physically labored throughout all of her adult life. She worked long shifts in a Laundromat, in a diaper service company, in a factory, and cooked and cleaned in the family’s own restaurant. At the age of eighty-five, she was still doing gardening work, canning tomatoes, and was even caught once pulling shingles off a roof. But the surface of her hands, the skin that touches you, is quiet and soothing. She still uses her hands in the most unique way that it is visibly noticeable by all who meet her. Whether she is applying moisturizer, cutting fruit, holding babies, or making noodles, her hands move with both surgical precision and gentle, oh so gentle deliberate care.

I did not inherit her beautiful blue eyes or her blonde hair, but I did get her voice. The voice can best be described as raspy and hoarse sounding. In fact, people will often ask if I have a cold when they hear me speak for the first time. Depending on who is asking, I may explain that it is my normal voice; it’s actually my grandmother’s voice, I may add with pride. Or I may admit to a cold that I don’t have to spare the asker the embarrassment. My husband thinks it is sexy. Personally, I think it comes from the acid reflux disease that I also inherited from Grandma, but it’s good that it sounds erotic to him. When I hear my voice after a television interview or on a recorder, I smile at the harsh, squeaky, rough sound. It’s her voice. I not only sound like her but I am privileged to hear her voice in my head.

I put my briefcase down and stepped into the living room, where I snuggled up on the couch next to Nana and we began to talk about our day. I went on and on about the amount of work and how much I didn’t complete, and then again asked the rhetorical question, “Where does time go?”

She smiled and said, “I was thinking the same thing.” She added, “Every time I looked at the clock today, it seemed to move so slowly and the day seemed so long.” Incredible. The cycle of life—time moves slowly, time moves too fast, and then it returns to moving slowly. Nana went on to talk about how difficult aging can be when you want to do more things then you are able to do, when you want to spend time on those things that make you feel productive and satisfied. I suddenly felt sad for her and a little ashamed of myself. I realized that I too will one day sit wishing that time would move quickly when I am no longer able to do the things that I love and the things that make me feel productive and valued. I’m reminded that time went on before me and will certainly go on after me…I am only afforded a sliver of that time. My sliver to date has been almost fifty years. Yep…I am about to turn fifty years old, and that is what all this musing about time and age is about.

More recently, I find myself taking time, making time, to reflect on how in the world I was to become fifty freaking years old soon. Even as I put it to print, I can’t believe time has passed that quickly. I know that is what everybody says—well, mostly old people say it. You rarely hear a twenty-five-year-old saying, “Oh my, where has the time gone.” I think that is because they know exactly where it has gone. They can account for the years, often with great detail.

Here it is almost fifty years for me and one hundred years for Grandma. If I am as fortunate as she to live a long life, I may be at my halfway point. What a thought. Perhaps fifty more years to live...what will I do with them? And if I have less than fifty years, what should I be doing with them? I guess this is what we mean when we talk about a midlife crisis. It’s a turning point, a reality check, a time to pause and reflect on life. Will the things that I truly valued and wanted in the first half of my life be the same for the remainder of my life? I suspect they won’t, and I think that is probably a healthy and expected thing, but the unknown of it seems a bit unsettling.

I feel a sense of urgency when I think about time moving and the things I still want to accomplish. I don’t want to keep looking at the clock. I want to look at my reflection in my children, in my family, my friends, and my patients. I want to know that I have embraced my grandmother’s philosophy, “Be greedy for life.” She has spent her life absorbing moments like a sponge so they could sustain her later; giving, always giving, so she could feel good about what she was getting; and loving, not just the easy kind of loving, but genuinely loving people that I often thought were not worthy of her love. But it never stopped her. Carrying a grudge or a hurt seemed to be a waste of time…precious time for her.

Throughout her aging process (which for her I think started at the age of ninety when she moved out of her home in Akron, stopped driving, and moved in with my parents), she would often say she was not ready to die, but promised to let us know when she was getting ready.

“Lori,” she said, “I always wanted to live long enough to see you graduate, and then I wanted to be here to see you get married, then to have babies. Then I thought I would be satisfied. But now I want to see my great-grandchildren graduate and get married and rock their babies. Time…there will never be enough. I will always want more, to see more, and to be part of more. I’m greedy for life.”

I believe that she still feels that way, but I have recently noticed that some of her physical energy is fading, and with that some of her emotional energy and her greed for life have begun to fade as well. Our conversation on time continued a bit more, and then our eyes met and she said, “I wonder what kind of time I have left.”

Now, being a psychologist and relatively sensitive and an emotionally strong person, I handled this comment with all the grace I could muster. I responded, “You have as much time as I decide, old lady. I will tell you when it is OK for you to die.” We both broke out laughing until we cried. She then added, “OK, then in the meantime, maybe we both should stop looking at the clock. Time is not always kind.” I agreed.

My connection with my grandmother was born out of fate and destiny. I say this in a somewhat melodramatic fashion, but the story of how we met or almost didn’t meet convinces me I am right in believing we were destined to share our time on earth.


The weatherman, Dick Goddard, was reporting on the extreme cold temperatures and the risk for significant snowfall. It was November 1962, one of the snowiest and coldest winters in Akron, Ohio. The ringing of the phone in the kitchen woke my mother from a sound sleep. The clock on the nightstand next to her bed read 2:45 a.m. While she was in the process of jumping out of bed, my father was already in the kitchen answering the phone. He returned to the bedroom and said, “It was the hospital. Your mother has started to bleed internally and they are preparing her for surgery.” My mother recalls a feeling of numbness climbing over her and her voice repeating, “Oh my God. They said she wasn’t strong enough yet for surgery.”

Two weeks prior it was discovered that my grandmother had bleeding ulcers in her stomach. She apparently had been showing signs of bleeding, but she ignored them, believing that would heal on their own. One morning when she was on her way to work at the local diaper store at 4:30 a.m., she collapsed near the car. She had been hospitalized for two weeks while the doctors tried to stabilize her. They knew she had lost a significant amount of blood and was not strong enough for them to attempt to surgically intervene. Unfortunately, the bleeding had restarted and emergency surgery was necessary. My grandmother’s recollection of that evening was waking feeling weak and ringing for the nurse; then she began to see pigs on the walls, and everything went black.

My parents arrived at the hospital as my grandmother was being rushed down the hallway on a gurney with several doctors and nurses running behind. One of the doctors stopped to tell them that she did not have a pulse and admitted that things did not look good. They saw that my grandmother was catholic and suggested that now may be the time for the family to contact a priest. They went on to say that they had called a Dr. Fox, who was one of the best surgeons on their staff, and he was prepping for the surgery.

My parents joined my grandfather in the waiting room for what would be an all-night vigil that lasted until about noon. As family stories go, I am told that as the vigil of waiting for news of the surgery continued, the doors at the end of the hall finally opened. My mother recalls the hospital hallway being long and dimly lit, so when the doors opened, it created an image of a small silhouette of a man in a surgical cap walking toward them.

They all stood as he approached, anxiously searching his face for clues on what he was about to say. Dr. Fox, or as the family has referred to him over the past fifty years, “the man with kind eyes and God’s hands,” let them know that Nana was still alive but not out of danger. They had to remove three fourths of her stomach. He then gestured to my mother’s belly and instructed her to go home and get some rest, as she was nine months pregnant with me. He felt she should go home to prevent early labor as I was to be born two weeks later. As my mother cried, he assured her that he would sit with my grandmother through the night but it was now out of his hands and in God’s.

Whether God played a role in my grandmother’s recovery can be debated by many. For her, she believes that her purpose on earth had not been completed. At the age of fifty, my age, she felt she still had so much to accomplish and so much to see and enjoy with her family. She always seemed to understand and accept that she had a purpose for being alive. With age that purpose seemed to become clearer and the drive to fulfill it became more intense.

For me, I wonder what my life would have been like if she had died and I had never met her. When I track back in time, decisions that I made, beliefs that I hold, and values that I cherish, I wonder if I would have come to different conclusions without her voice in my head. I sit here today incredibly grateful that on that early morning in November 1962, somebody intervened and gave me the ultimate gift of my grandmother. I received the gift of time, time with her for the past fifty years.

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Genre – Memoir

Rating – PG13

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