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Exiting Gracefully – Barbara Greenham

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As we age, however much we resist it, our bodies find ways to remind us of the passing years. It is simply a part of growing old. Resistance is important, but I think many people put too much stock in their ability to shake off the years and ignore their aches and pains, and are deeply disappointed when their efforts are unsuccessful.

Fighting to the end is a dramatic sentiment, and there is no doubt that a positive mental attitude is important to maintaining good health. But not everyone can or wants to turn their life into a constant battle against the inevitable, and for them, “growing old gracefully” is as important as believing “seventy is the new fifty” or other such catchy slogans. As with most things in life, there is a fine though very important line between giving effort and giving up. I believe that finding that line for ourselves is as important a part of the search for health as any other factor.

In her later years, my mother-in-law Barbara Greenham and I developed a deep and rewarding friendship that lasted until her death at eighty-four. She didn’t succumb to a specific aggressive ailment but more to the gradual shutting down of her body after a lifetime of toil and sorrow. We talked a lot, every day, and had some wonderful chats about life and the lessons it can teach us.
She had risen from abject poverty and the social stultification of pre-war Scotland to become a Registered Nurse and Midwife until she retired after fifty years of wearing the whites. She also faced the heartbreaking challenge of caring for her profoundly-disabled son Ian at home for almost sixteen years, refusing to commit him to a care facility where his quality of life would have been just about nil. At least at home, she said, he could feel the love of the people around him even if though he could not respond in any way. And she later nursed her husband through a long and painful death from cancer that caused her a great deal of pain, too.

If ever there was a person with a pragmatic attitude towards life, it was Barbara Greenham, so I always listened attentively when she talked about it. She met a number of health challenges of her own as she moved through her sixties and seventies, and while she refused to give up or give in, she also refused to pretend her time wasn’t running out.

Shortly before she died she told me that she was actually looking forward to being released from an increasingly-uncomfortable existence. She did not have a strong religious faith in what might lay “on the other side” but after my Near Death Experience, in which she was very interested, I believe she had a belief that there was more to come. I have heard and read about many people saying, in their last days, “I’m ready to go” and always assumed it was most likely caused by a weariness of pain and suffering. But Mrs. Greenham (as I teasingly and affectionately called her- in response to her calling me Mr. Chapman) was not in much pain and didn’t appear to be suffering, so I asked her what prompted her to say that.

She said she literally meant what she said, she was ready to go. She’d had an interesting and challenging life, lost a son and a husband, survived health challenges that would have killed a lesser person and, in her final years, had found contentment and genuine happiness living with her only daughter and son-in-law. She had fought the good fight, and would continue to do so as long as she could. She wasn’t giving up by any means, but as a pragmatic Scot (as she described herself) she would waste no time and energy on losing battles, preferring to slip gracefully from this life to whatever lay beyond. And when her time came a few months later, with Carlyn and me by her side, that is exactly what she did.

Dylan Thomas said “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light”. But Barbara Greenham disagreed. “Do the best you can in life and take comfort in that fact, and when your time comes, greet it with peace, not rage.” Between those two philosophies, I know the one I prefer.

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