There’s something ironic about a 55 year old woman discovering her body for the first time. And no, this is not a sexual tell all. This is a story about death and life, fat and muscles, despair and hope.
I’ve put my body through a lot over the years: two high risk pregnancies and births, a week in the cardiac unit when I was only 25, the more recent debilitating side effects of Graves Disease and resulting heart complications and weight fluctuations. These have all taken their toll on this body of mine. I know many people have had health challenges far worse than mine. Still, I didn’t do that great of a job taking care of my physical body. I had never realized the cooperative nature, the reciprocal relationship, of me taking care of my body–so that my body could take care of me.
I have seen the human body literally shrivel up and die, before my very eyes. Several years ago, my husband and I were suddenly thrust into full time caretaker roles when his mother suffered a massive stroke and his 93 year old father had just begun to be bed ridden. The next thing I knew, we were dealing with adult diapers, hospice nurses coming into the house, feedings, medicine being dispensed around the clock, and the sense that we were caught up in something we were unprepared for but could not escape. And neither could they.
It was a whirlwind of paperwork, visits, and conversations with nurses as to the speed of their decline, and most of all, a sense of great loss, anxiety, and dread. For some people nearing the end, there are murmured words of affection, and reminiscing together over sweet times and tender memories. But they were not in a state to talk or reminisce, or murmur words of love. We held their veined, translucent hands and talked to them but I don’t know how much they understood. Their bodies deteriorated quickly. Skin became paper thin. Their eyes lost focus. Their decline was not a scene you would want to remember foremost in your mind. But in reality, it was just their physical bodies that spiraled towards death. I knew they were still vibrant people, generous and kind, in their hearts. Just as we knew God was still faithful and kind, even in this very devastating scene. Those truths, my husband and I held onto.
In the midst of this dark scene, I was dealing with some serious health issues myself. Doctors evaluated my racing heart, blood pressure spikes, my nervousness, and tremors. The diagnosis of Graves Disease, an endocrine disorder, had me feeling like I was having a nervous breakdown. In addition, my past experience I had had with Pericarditis, an inflammation of the lining of my heart, was re evaluated and we questioned what damage had been done to my heart.
My physical body was in revolt against me. But it was a wakeup call for me. Suddenly I had a desperate will to live and thrive, even as my in-laws were dying in front of me. This juxtaposition of life and death, fighting for it and failing, got to me. I had never thought much of protecting my body. I had never been its advocate, really. As long as it worked fine, as long as it didn’t work against me, I ignored it. I had carelessly accepted how it housed my soul. I didn’t plan or prepare how to help it weather life’s storms. I hadn’t thought of its needs.
Now I realized I had to change that thinking. I was given this wake-up call during the short months my in-laws were finishing their journey on this earth. This, perhaps, was their final wordless gift to me.
This wakeup call culminated in an epiphany, two years after their passing. I looked at my own body in the mirror and realized it was going to take a journey to the end as well. My body would be reaching an expiration date in the years ahead. It would only get older. It would only get weaker. Or so I thought. Until one day last fall when it hit me—did I need to cooperate so passively with the decline of my body?
Did resignation have to lead the way?
So I joined the gym back in September. With my Graves Disease in temporary remission and my blood pressure under control, I had no excuses why I couldn’t at least perk up my old body a little. Give it a tune up, even if I couldn’t give it an overall over haul. But something happened in those early weeks of lifting weights, being on the tread mill, going to exercise classes: I started to admire my body. Or I should say, I started to admire the body God had loaned to me. He made it, after all. He designed it. And the physical body is a beautiful thing.
I decided my body could become fit, more muscular and toned. It wasn’t an egotistical quest. It was more of a release I was giving my body; a permission to show its strength and let me marvel at its capabilities. I had always admired my husband’s muscles, his strong back, his thick powerful legs. It had never occurred to me, before, that I could have these same glorious muscles; to not only work with this body on loan to me, but to actually work it out.
Oh I had done daily walks, and I had, in years past, done some mild exercise from time to time. But never had I pressed my body to its limits. Never had I worked to actually develop muscles. Never had I consistently worked my body out and smiled at the end of an hour and a half, because my body had done so well. Good body, I would silently praise it, after a good hard work out. Good job, I’d affirm it.
My body loves to exercise now; even if I don’t. This body of mine wants to show off muscle and sinew. It begs for a work out now, when 4pm rolls around. And my mind doesn’t mind the routine either. I do a lot of thinking and dreaming on the tread mill. I do a lot of breathing and counting when I’m pumping some iron.
I do a lot of living, at the gym. And it makes up for the scenes of death and dying that I have experienced, and will still experience more of, in the future.
You know that song, Love the One you’re with? I think we should take that advice. And start by loving the body that’s with you for your entire life. Your physical body is not going anywhere until you draw your last breath. It’s your best friend, so to speak. You might want to try being friendlier to your body.
It was strange to receive the cremated remains of both my in laws. They had donated their body to the local teaching hospital so that it might help their research on diseases. That was how my in laws had lived their lives, with other people and their needs on their minds. They were sacrificial and caring, generous and kind. I remember the day the hospital sent first the cremated remains of my mother in law (her body, apparently, didn’t hold as much fascination for them as my father-in-law’s physical body because his, they kept for over a year. He was 95 when he drew his last breath.)
My husband and I opened the cardboard box it had been shipped in and took out the urn. Mo mother in law had loaned her body to science and now her body was returned to us, in ashes that would be returned to the earth. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. It wasn’t such a tragic, scary thought anymore, this cycle of life.
I’m learning to love this body of mine. And I don’t mean that in the sense of needing to accept my weight or physical appearance. Who cares about stretch marks or moles when you’ve got a body to live in and you’re still breathing? When you get a chance to live, right here, right now?
It’s more that I realize this body is just on loan to me. I can pump some iron and make this body stronger, or I can let it go weak and flabby. I can get on a treadmill and feel my heart beat furiously or I can lay in bed for hours and let it get all squishy. It’ll pretty much become whatever I want it to become. And lately, at the age of 55, I’ve decided I want my body to be a fine running machine, like a sleek sports car but without all the pizzazz. I’ll settle for strong bones, beating heart, arm muscles that can lift bags of groceries or support the aging back of my own 90 year old mother. I’m watching her body decline before my eyes. As I do, I’m working out my body more than I ever have before. But not because I’m trying to furiously beat the inevitable physical decline. I know that happens to us all.
I’m just realizing my poor body hasn’t had the challenges its needed. It hasn’t gotten used up enough. It hasn’t been flexed and worked out enough. There’s so much more this body can do. I feel sad for having deprived it of the opportunities to climb, run, lift, stretch, pull, to its maximum capacity. I owe my physical body a profuse apology.
I’ve come to see that this body on loan to me is a gift from God. He said I could do whatever I want with it. But like an ignorant silly child who takes an expensive complicated toy and just bangs it on the floor, I have not understood what this body can do, what it was meant for, what it begs for.
I’ve been a poor host to this body on loan to me. And I’m changing that.
For as long as I can, for as long as it will hold out, this body will get the excitement, physical challenges, exercise and nutrition that it deserves. I’m not only going to take care of it, I’m going to enjoy what it can do.
I’ve got a relationship with my physical body. And its not going to be a love-hate one. I don’t have time for that. And neither do you.
No, this will be a harmonious relationship, that my body and I will have; a relationship of appreciation and respect –and even tenderness. Later when my body has done its work and it is declining its way to the dust of the earth once more, I hope to hear some good news as I approach heaven’s gates.
And the “well done” I want to hear from God won’t just be all about my faith, my words and actions towards others. It’ll also be about the stewardship of this life God gave me, and that includes the body God loaned to me for the time I was on earth. I want to make God proud. And I think of that each time my muscles flex and I lift a weight upward, towards heaven.