April 19, 2008

The blessing of long life?

Indiana Woman, Oldest Known Person, Turns 115 on Sunday

I don't know why, but I was very moved by this story of Edna Parker. She was born in 1893 and is, to date, the oldest living person in the world. The article itself is mostly about how this could be possible; what vagaries of genetics, lifestyle and good luck have allowed this woman to live through more than a century of human life.

After scanning the whole story, I was struck mostly, though, by what went unsaid. It says her husband died in 1938. She spent the next 55 years living alone on their farmhouse before going to live with one of her sons. It says she outlived both of her children. How someone could write a story about a 115 year lifetime and not mention the effect of such loss, I have no idea. How did she cope? What did she do on the nights, year after year, alone in the home she once shared? How did she get through the days of the funerals of her only sons?

Both her sisters lived long lives, too, into their late 80's and 90's, and I imagine and hope that they leaned on each other for those moments. Then, eventually, they also passed away. I wonder if after so many years of being the one left behind, it hurt less? Or more?

The main interest of the article was on research being done of such "supercentenarians" like Mrs. Parker, an upwelling of eager enthusiasm to uncover their secrets so that everyone can live and live and live. But I think the article missed one key point: Nowhere does anyone ask Mrs. Parker her own perspective.

I wonder about that, if this "holy grail" of anti-aging, should really be sought at all. Edna Parker, from the little I could glean about her in this story, is a happy woman. She laughs and smiles at her birthday celebration and enjoys looking over a scrapbook of her life. The only real reason behind her extended years given is that she "appears not to dwell on stressful events".

Her grandson Don Parker, himself in his late 50's, had this to say about her. "We don't know why she's lived so long. But she's never been a worrier and she's always been a thin person, so maybe that has something to do with it."

I enjoy what he doesn't say about her, though, and of course this is only my own interpretation. But he doesn't seem to care why she's lived so long. Maybe it's her lack of worry, her ability to handle stress, maybe it's her body type. Who knows? Why give it thought? To him, as I see it, what matters is not why she is still alive, but simply the fact that she IS still alive, that she's celebrating with three generations of grandchildren, and still recognizes the pictures of her lost family in an album. It is not the long life itself that matters to her family, but the woman who lives it.

I wonder if she feels each year as a burden, like a slow-moving clock on the last day of school for a child, eager for summer vacation. She wasn't a worrier, so perhaps not. Perhaps, I hope, the real story to be learned from Mrs. Edna Parker is not in her genes, but in her spirit. She has lived for over a century, seen many wars, seen a country grow and expand to amazing dimension. She has endured the loss of everyone close to her and still continues forward in her life, forging new loves, new purpose, new reasons for each day.

Of course I do not know the woman, though I would dearly love to meet her. But it seems to me that she has managed to perfect the art of living in the moment; neither dwelling on the past or dreading the future. This is, to me, her real gift that should be studied and admired for future generations.

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