Do you remember the riddle of the Sphinx from the play Oedipus the King by the ancient Greek writer Sophocles? When I say ancient, I really mean it, by the way. The play was believed to have had its first performance in the year 429 BC, or BCE if you prefer. Even though it was written over 2400 years ago, this play is still an active part of our worldwide cultures. Hey, this is what gave birth to the name Oedipal or Oedipus complex, referring to a male's excessive or abnormal love of his mother. I don't want to go into all of that other stuff right now, though. Let's get back to that riddle business.
Legend had it that Thebes was terrorized by a Sphinx that asked all travelers who passed to answer a question. If their answer was correct, they could pass safely on their way. If their answer was wrong, as it always was, she would kill them. Oedipus came to the Sphinx and was asked what creature goes on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening. Oedipus thought for a moment and answered that it was Man, who crawls as a baby, walks as a man, and uses a cane in his old age. The Sphinx was so infuriated by him giving the correct answer that she flung herself to her death, and the people of Thebes proclaimed Oedipus as their King.
I remember first hearing of Oedipus and the Sphinx when I was in High School. I thought then, and still do, that although the riddle and its solution might seem simple, they are very profound. Generally speaking, we are all at the mercy of our bodies and the processes they must go through during the courses of our lives. Rich or poor, we all must start this life as babies crawling on our knees. I know that lots of people say their babies never, ever crawled in their lives, but went straight from lying in their cribs to running the New York Marathon. But most of us mere mortals go through the process of building our muscle strength and coordination by starting out either rolling around on the floor or crawling on our hands and knees. It gives us an opportunity to explore and learn our surroundings as well as learning how to use and strengthen our bodies.
When we are on our two legs, we attack our lives wholeheartedly, not necessarily thinking of what repercussions our actions will have on our bodies and our future. I'm not referring to things like drinking or smoking or doing drugs, although those certainly have an impact on the body. It's just that when we are younger, whether it be nine, or nineteen, or thirty-nine, we still sometimes tend to feel sort of immortal. We push our bodies to the limit, twisting and straining our multitude of joints and muscles in an effort to complete everything we want to accomplish, or all of the things that are expected of us.
Then evening approaches for all who don't die young. The body begins the inevitable cycle of breaking down, wearing down, slowing down. It's a very individual process; some people, for example, never get to the point of needing a cane to steady them on their path, while others have bodies that are ravaged by various effects of wear-and-tear or illness. Others may have healthy bodies but deal with things like Alzheimer's or dementia. I don't think it's necessarily appropriate to use the word aging either, because it doesn't necessarily happen at the same times for everyone. I can say with certainty that in my case the breakdown began when I was almost thirty and began to experience the effects of lupus.
Having been raised by a woman who was fifty-three years my senior, I was able to learn about the effects of time and experience at a fairly young age. Gram had fairly advanced arthritis in her knees and hands by the time I came to live with her when I was nine and she was sixty-two. She had done housework from the time she was a small child; her own mother died of pregnancy-related complications before Gram turned two, and her father never remarried. She spent many years working hard, whether in her home or garden, or in jobs that she had from time to time over the years. She pushed her body to the limit, and it wore down.
There were things other than arthritis that also took their toll on her body, as can be the case with anyone. When she was in her seventies, she permanently lost the vision in one eye due to glaucoma. Her increasing challenges with worsening arthritis, coupled with her decreased vision, made it a bit more difficult for her to do things like eat as tidily as she had always done. (With the exception of tostadas. I never saw her eat one of those without getting it everywhere, and we'd have a huge laugh every time she made an attempt to eat one.) We took it in stride, though. I had started taking over the laundry duties when I was around twelve, and I tried to wash her clothes whenever it was needed.
She would also comment about having a thin skin. As can often happen, her skin became more delicate and her blood vessels were less resilient than they had been in her younger years. I grew very adept at bandaging the torn flaps of skin she'd get from bumping into a door frame or a piece of furniture. We'd joke that all she needed to do to get bruised was to be given a hard look, and that wasn't far from the truth. Even though she spent most of the last two months of her life in a nursing home, coming home to spend her last few days in a hospital bed and die in her own bedroom, her arms had several visible bruises when she died. Apparently her children found these embarrassing when they prepared for her funeral, as they buried her in long sleeves, which she didn't often wear.
My heart was already breaking as I walked to her coffin to say my last farewell. Her illness and death had created a flood of anger and emotions among her children, much of which was directed at me for lack of a better target. In their extreme pain they didn't realize that for the second time in my life, I had essentially lost a mother as well. I walked up to the coffin to see her one last time, and the grief became mingled with anger bordering on fury. In their eagerness to make her body look better by covering up her bruises, her badges of life, they clothed her in a top that was dirty. She went to her grave in a shirt that had food spilled on it and hadn't yet been laundered. In an attempt to hide the signs and ravages of age, they had made the situation worse by clothing her in something that pointed out her weaknesses. No one, it seemed to me, had cared enough to take the time to launder the clothes that she wore to her grave.
Every time I think of the last time I saw Gram, my heart breaks again. I knew her well enough to know that she would never have been ashamed of her bruises. They were inevitable, and they were clear signs that she was still among the living. They were the brave signs of her frail, ongoing mortality. She would not have cared whether they were covered, but she certainly would have been furious to have them covered by dirty clothes that everyone would see. If she had seen it coming, I know she would have given them the sharp side of her tongue, as she would have described it. The most important thing for me to remember, I guess, is that the dirty clothes she wore brought no shame upon her. The peace and beauty on her face were more glorious than any clothing she could have worn, and my love for her outshines it all.
And the cycle of the Sphinx continues for every one of us.