Conscious Aging: Loss of Emotional Anchors

I’ve written a fair amount about what my going to Panama in November and January might do for Minga. But it’s also true that seeing my dear friend at this difficult time in her life is about me. This visit demands something big: that I acknowledge the loss of yet another emotional anchor in my life, even as I respond with complete focus on MInga and her needs. My relationship with Minga has shifted over the more than five decades during which I’ve known her. During the Peace Corps years, I was by far the more needy. Peace Corps training focused on language fluency and on what projects we might initiate. There was relatively little practical information on daily survival: how to cook over a wood fire and kill a chicken, how to find clean water, how to avoid getting parasites, malaria, bites from rabid bats, how to keep food safe from marauding rodents. For all of those day-to-day living skills, I was entirely dependent on Minga’s generosity of spirit. In return, I gave her the kind of “girlfriend” companionship that was generally not part of village culture, and an outlet for her intelligence and planning skill. She was a key member of the co-op. I gave her challenge and stimulation and friendship. But she kept me alive.

In more recent years, our relationship has been more balanced, as we sit together as single older women and grandmothers, talking about our lives. I have been able to do more for her: buy a rocking chair, a new TV, leave her with cash so she could make choices without having to ask her grown children for money. She appreciates, but never asks.

Throughout, whether I could give her anything or not, she has been unwavering as a loving and accepting presence in my life — what I call an emotional anchor. Jerry was that for me, and my friend Bern, and a few others.

Now, Minga can’t be that for me: her own situation is too dire. Now I will need to be there entirely for her. This kind of reversal of role is not new to me. My friend Bern, who died in 2013, had a complicated illness which resulting in her suffering excruciating pain. Doctors had a very hard time finding the sweet spot where her pain was controlled without triggering hallucinations, which terrified her. Toward the very end pain took away all that was recognizable about her, and she knew it. She simply wanted to die. It was a hard time in a friendship. I willingly and gratefully gave all that I could, even knowing that what I had to offer didn’t come near to being enough. She told me near the end that she thought everyone dies alone. I found it a remarkable statement coming from a woman of deep faith.

I’m ready to be there for Minga, to put aside what I’ve needed from her to give as much love and support as I can. I expect to find her turned inward, doing battle with her difficult medical regimen and the fear of impending death. I think it will be difficult for me, in much the same way Bern’s death was difficult. I will be as present and as loving and as selfless as I humanly can.

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