My maternal grandmother is a bipolar 91-year-old. She was diagnosed with dementia five years ago and the slow onset of Alzheimer's is now taking its toll. Every time I visit home it seems as if a few more pages in her life book have turned. Her hair faded to silver white; her skin and bones very fragile; and her memories now piecemeal. Despite these changes, some things have stayed the same. In the morning she loves to drink a piping hot cup of water, and she maintains an unconditional love for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Akiko is the sole surviving grandparent in my family.
When I come home I always go into Akiko's room in our house, and sit down beside her. At first, she'll stare at me for a couple of minutes. Then she'll grin and say, "Hey! I've seen you before, haven't I?" In time, she has forgotten little things: my favorite food, my birthday, my job, and my name. But she is my grandmother and we are genetically bonded.
Akiko is getting old, and I am watching a life that doesn't have much time. My family history is tied up in knotted memories inside of her head, and there are secrets I might never know so I carry a sense of regret for the questions I never asked. But maybe she prefers it this way. I'm a young 25 and when I'm with her I see our age differences.
I'm currently living in Vietnam where I teach English in an industrial Northern province. Every day after class I go to the market to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, and one of the most visible aspects of Vietnamese culture is the pious treatment of older men and woman I see every day. In total contrast to American culture, Vietnam has a deep reverence for aging. Here I see the most elderly men and women working, carrying their grandchildren, boisterously drinking and playing games. The Vietnamese are surrounded by an abundance of old energy and life.
As part of my U.S Fulbright training when I first arrived to Vietnam, I was asked to evaluate the cultural idiosyncrasies between the United States and Vietnam. One posit I observed is "The U.S.-American emphasis on concrete achievements and 'doing' means that age is not highly valued, for the older you are the less you can accomplish. Age is also suspect because new is usually better in U.S.-American culture, and the elderly are generally out-of-touch with what's new." Being a mere 237 years old, America doesn't know what to do with the aged. Obsessed with the new and the young, it sends the old away to fade and die in homes; surrounded by people they neither love nor recognize.
The film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, follows the life and career of 85-year-old world renowned sushi chef, Jiro Ono. The film focuses on Jiro's life-long dedication to the craft of sushi making. For Jiro, there is no peaking. His approach to work and life is to move with turtle-like consistency:
You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That's the secret to success... and is the key to being regarded honorably. I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I'll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is.
Japanese print maker Hokusai completed all of his most important work, including the famous Great Wave off Kanagawa -- after the age of 60. He was constantly interested in improving his skill. In a postscript to his work, Hokusai wrote:
From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them; while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove this is no lie.
For Hokusai, age is not a marker for physical and professional self-development -- rather, age is nourishment. With age, he gains more knowledge and time to improve. Yes, we will all die. But to leave behind great work or a great family is to live forever. This he understood.
My grandmother has done her work, and she deserves to rest. Now it is my responsibility to remember her birthday and her favorite food. As for me, my favorite food will probably continue to change in this lifetime. Turning 25 is perhaps the first time in my life I recognize I have an immense future ahead of me, as well as a past. My mistakes and Akiko's wisdom serve as footnotes to life as I enter the next quarter-century. The honor of aging.
My parents are the next in line. I already have flashbacks of them -- when my dad stood on the porch with a sword as I returned home from my first date, when my mom taught me how to make rice for the first time -- when the three of us drove up to Big Sur to go wine tasting. They are so important to me, and so if I try to understand my own aging, perhaps I'll gain some insight into theirs. And if for some reason the day comes we can no longer communicate with words, I might still be able to understand what they need, because aging is just part of life. A wonderful part of life.