I was in Greece recently and as always when I’m in Athens, I made several visits to my Aunt Maria. She’s 96 now. For a whole lot of complicated family reasons I didn’t see her for much of my life, and since we got together some six years ago, we’ve been trying to make up for lost time. And it’s been tough because the more we’ve come to treasure each other’s company the harder it’s been not to regret that lost time. Partly because Aunt Maria has a lot of hard-earned wisdom and partly because she was a regular participant and follower at a centre that drew on eastern philosophy (something very unusual for a person of her age in Greece), my respectful and admiring nickname for her has been Auntie Buddha. And in true Buddhist tradition, we’ve tried to bring ourselves to the conclusion that in some weird and unfathomable (to us) way, the timing is perfect and maybe we wouldn’t have been ready for each other any earlier.
There’s so much I could write about Aunt Maria. About how we met when I had just turned 60 and she had just turned 90. And how turning 60 made me feel all of a sudden old, though she would tell me not only how young I was, but actually how terribly young I was. About how she would counsel me to keep a little notebook by my bed and every night, before going to sleep, to write a list of 10 miracles that had happened to me that day: small but wondrous things. For example, she said, here’s one that happened to me yesterday. I was walking on the pavement to the shop. And I stumbled and almost fell. The ‘almost’ bit was the miracle, it really was, she said. Imagine if I’d fallen! I could be in the hospital now.
About how she suggested I keep a small stone in my bag or pocket as a talisman, something I could reach for, and in touching its smooth surface, be reminded of things I could feel grateful for. About how she was reading The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, translated into Greek, and making detailed notes in the margins, delighting in it and savouring it page by page and wanting to share it with me. About how, only last year, aged 95, she was reading a huge nineteenth century French novel every afternoon – I don’t think it was Proust, but it may well have been – because she didn’t want to forget her French and let it become something lost from her mind. About how she wanted to learn something new every day and how she made sure that she did.
It was Aunt Maria who showed me the phrase ‘something to do, somebody to love, something to look forward to’ that was taped to her kitchen wall and said that these were the words that she lived by. That’s all you need, she said, to have a good life. And although she lived of necessity very frugally and alone, in a tiny little studio apartment at the top of an apartment block in Athens (such a place is called a ‘doma’ in Greek) she said her life was full and rich. Those three things, well, she felt she had them all.
But now, and here’s the sometime cruelty of age, she doesn’t. Theouli, she says in the evening as she goes to bed, and it’s an affectionate and intimate expression to God: something like hey, sweet Pal up there, Theouli, please take me tonight. You know what? I’m ready. I really am. But then I wake up in the morning, she says, and it seems that He, or She, or Whoever doesn’t want me yet. And she shrugs sadly, though she smiles too, in that fatalistic Greek way and murmurs a little questioning ‘eh?’ to herself. Eh? is a rhetorical question and one you’ll hear a lot in Greece. It means: and what can I do about this? Absolutely nothing at all, that’s what.
So here’s how it is right now for Aunt Maria. Her son lives overseas on the other side of the world. Her daughter lives nearby (in the same apartment block in fact) but has big anxieties of her own. Her grandchildren are studying – one in Paris and one on the other side of the city, both caught up in their own lives. Her knees have become very painful and prevent her from walking, though she moves around her small apartment with the help of a cane. Most of her peer-group friends have died, and the ones that remain are as tied to their living spaces as she is. Her eyesight no longer makes reading a pleasure. Her hearing is very poor and her hearing aids need recalibrating, but the private audiology centre she uses is in the centre of Athens, an impossible and long bus-ride away, and there is no local outlet nor indeed any state provision for such ‘luxuries’. Her diminished hearing now makes even using her amplified telephone difficult other than for perfunctory calls.
Hey, sweet Pal up there, Theouli, please take me tonight. You know what? I’m ready. I really am.
Her room affords her the space for a single bed and a small chair and she points with her stick from one to the other and then in the direction of the bathroom. This has become my life, she says. Bed-chair, chair-bed, bed-bathroom, bathroom-chair, chair-bed. And then she feels badly that she is being so negative. But still, she adds. How lucky I am to have my own place, my own palace. So many people aren’t nearly as lucky as me.
On my last visit, we were both sad. I don’t know if I’ll see you again, she said, as we contemplated my next visit in January. She was so much frailer than my last visit in March. Tiny and shrunken, she no longer dresses each day and stays in her nightwear. She has a very kind carer who stays with her, sleeping overnight in a cot on the enclosed balcony: a heart-breakingly sweet young Ukrainian woman called Jenny, with a big and sad story of her own. She’s only recently arrived in Athens – a city characterised by joblessness – and is no doubt grateful for what will inevitably be a very modest wage.
And now Aunt Maria has thrown away her teeth. One night, she told me, I just chucked them out of the window. The top set and then the bottom set. I took them out of the glass by my bed, and threw them away. Why? I asked, appalled. I don’t know, she said. I just did. And of course I was reminded of Shakespeare’s famous lines about the end of life in As You Like It, a time of “second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”. And I felt so sad sitting with her and witnessing her sorrow that she had lived so long she even despaired that there was any point in having teeth; that she had lived beyond the point at which she felt her life had any meaning.
You do your yoga every day? I asked. Of course! she replied. It’s terribly important.
But then, and I don’t know how we got onto the subject, she told me how she still does her yoga stretches every day. I think it was because she asked me about my photography and I told her that I took pictures of older people who were still active and how seeing these people made younger people think again about what ageing was all about and take heart that maybe it wasn’t inevitably going to be so terrible after all. And it surprises me as I think back and remember that actually it’s true, I did tell her this, because to a large extent I have stopped doing much talking on my visits. I find she struggles so much to hear what I’m saying, it’s better when I simply offer her my companionship and let her be the one to do the talking and the reminiscing. But in this instance I’d clearly broken my rule and she’d heard what I’d said and taken it in.
You do your yoga every day? I asked. Of course! she replied. It’s terribly important. And she couldn’t wait to let me see. She started demonstrating as she sat in her chair, and showed me how she stretched her arms, and then her neck and how she could reach down and put her hands flat on the floor while she was sitting, and then indeed she said that she could do it while she was standing.
And I called Jenny into the room as she went through her exercises and it was as though the years just fell away in the process. Her face lit up with each new move and she became animated again, reminding me of how she used to be and she smiled proudly, allowing me to get my camera out (definitely a no-no until this moment). When you do the exercise where you stand and touch the floor with your hands, she said, you have to start with your arms stretched up above your head, but touching your ears. That’s the secret, she said, your upper arms must be over your ears. And then you lean over and over – with your legs straight, of course – and eventually you get your hands down to the floor, palms down. And she did it in an effortless and lithe motion and stayed there, with her palms flat on the floor, while we gasped and clapped. Then Jenny and I tried to do it and we failed (try it! It’s hard): we couldn’t get much farther than our knees, and she laughed at us as we looked on at her in incredulous admiration.
And I was reminded of the profound simplicity of those words taped to her kitchen wall: ‘something to do, somebody to love, something to look forward to’ and I thought how in those few moments she’d had all three once more. And how having them took the years away from her so that, as she worked through her daily routine in front of us, while we smiled and watched and learned from her as she did it, she’d looked five or ten years younger. And yet I was aware how fleeting and elusive those precious moments were and I felt again how sad it is to be lonely and isolated and under-stimulated in your final years even if you are my very wise Auntie Buddha with a lot of inner strength to draw on. And I could see that living a very, very long life, even a relatively healthy one, is by no means in itself always a blessing. Maybe her Theouli will feel the timing’s right and heed her prayers, maybe I’ll see her again in January, I don’t know. But I do know that I wish I could make sure that she has her three essentials until He or She or Whoever does listen up, and how very, very sad it makes me to know that I can’t.