My current theme of Jubilación, defined as joyful vocation in the elder years, does not exclude challenges. Far from it!

Most people are well aware that aging inevitably has negative consequences and that the pains of youth and middle age continue into the elder years. Fortunately, even trauma and suffering can be met with resilience, compassion for self and others, and continued growth.

When I think of a resilient, compassionate person, I think of my friend Joan Rough. She’s a visual artist, poet, and now memoirist. Her new book Scattering Ashes: A Memoir of Letting Go will launch 5:30 September 30 at the New Dominion Bookstore in Charlottesville. I highly recommend the book, especially to people who are caregivers, have alcoholic parents, or have experienced PTSD.

Joan also exudes the spirit of jubilación. Look at that smile! The guest post below will explain how she found joy in the midst of a lifetime of struggle with her difficult mother.

Joan holding

Joan holding Sam, one of her two dogs. She and her husband Bill also have a crazy cat Lilliput.

Living a Life of Quality

By Joan Z. Rough

Here comes another one! Birthday, that is.

In just a few short months I’ll be seventy-four. But it feels like I just celebrated my seventy-third birthday yesterday. My mother was eighty-four when she died in 2007 and in November I’ll be ten years younger than she was. If time goes as fast as it has been, my eighty-fourth will be here before I know it. There is a lot of work still to do before my turn comes to leave the planet.

I cared for my mother during her last seven years on earth. She taught me much about aging, death, and how not to live. She died an abusive, bitter woman, who’d never made peace with herself and the world she left behind. At the end she lived in denial about her lung cancer, while still puffing away until the day she was admitted to the hospital where she died.

Admittedly, she’d had a difficult life. She was abandoned by her father, abused by her mother who made her work to help put food on the table, and was finally thrown out of her home when her mother told her she was too much trouble to have around. She was seventeen years old at the time. She fell in love and not long afterward married my father, who one day later went off to fight in WWII. Nine months later I was born to these two — a young woman who never had a chance to taste life’s possibilities and a man who fought and killed for his country. After the war it was clear that my father was suffering as a result of the action he participated in and observed during the war. Mom often told me, “Your father came home a different man.” At the time they labeled his problem, “shell shock.” There was no interest in treating him or any other veteran’s sudden mood swings, violent tempers, or the other symptoms of what we know today as PTSD.

For spouses and children living with someone with untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, life can be a living hell. The disorder easily spreads throughout the family, due to the physical and psychological abuse from the PTSD sufferer. My brothers and I were abused children … beaten by our father and ignored by our mother who often reported our misbehaviors to him. Amidst all of that there were happy times, but we never knew from one minute to the next when our father would explode. Mom was as afraid of him as we were and she often called him King Kong, when she was angry and upset by his behaviors.

I watched both of my parents live unhappy lives and die without coming to terms with who they were or how they impacted their world. I often found myself making note of how I wanted to live, as well as die. But just getting through the days as caretaker to my mother left me little time for that. After her death I was at once grateful that she was gone, but also filled with anger, hatred, and complete brokenness.

I was well on my way to being just like her … unhappy, ashamed, and filled with rage.

I knew that if I wanted something different for myself I would have to change the way I looked at myself, my life, and the world in general. With the help of a therapist who specialized in working with trauma patients, I started the hard work of putting my own PTSD behind me. I dug through memories, looked closely at my attitudes, trying to put the pieces of myself back together into a whole and happy human being.

As the years pass, I’ve watched my hair turn gray and my eyes grow weaker. My body is missing its youthful bounce. I’ve had a run in with cancer, and watched my grandchildren grow from infants into astounding teenagers. Sometime in the future it will be my time to cross the bridge into another world. But I have revised the way I wake up each morning and take great solace in the steps I have taken to live a rewarding life.

I’ve broken the chain of abuse and misery within my family.

I’ve been able to trade my victimhood for strength and the ability to face the future with curiosity and wonder. I’ve learned how to forgive those who have caused me pain and to be grateful for the adversity that has been sent my way. Without it I might have never learned from the mistakes of those who came before me.

As my next birthday grows closer, I’m taking aim at continuing to live a more mindful life. I believe that kindness is the stepping stone into the world’s future as well as my own. I find great comfort these days in sharing my story, spreading laughter and smiles, as well as keeping myself on the path I’ve chosen.

The words “quality of life,” are mostly used in talking about those who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness and are making a transition toward death. But the quality of everyone’s life is important, whether they are ten, twenty, or eighty-nine. Being able to redefine ourselves at any age, and let go of the negativity, anger, fear, and hatred we all carry with us, can transform our lives and relieve much suffering.

You can buy the book by clicking on the image above. How do you define quality of life at whatever age you are?

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