The Gentle Nudge of Relinquishment

The Gentle Nudge of Relinquishment



With an afternoon set aside to write this column, I suddenly viewed the morning as an opportunity to cook up a boiled dinner of corned beef, cabbage, red potatoes and carrots. I had purchased three generous corned beef packages on sale, thinking that I might as well make enough, in one fell swoop, to feed my mom, her neighbor, my daughter and son-in-law, along with my husband and me. 

Seemed simple enough. Get three large pots of water boiling, open the packages, dump in the roasts, then do a little extra preparation: washing the potatoes, trimming the cabbages, peeling and chopping the carrots.
Just writing this exhausts me. I hit a wall today with cooking. I have loved to cook all my life. I do it well. But, as of tonight, I believe that ship has sailed, and I’m now thinking that Trader Joe’s and I will remain primary cooking partners from here on out.

Today, during all of the prep, I stewed over how much more is involved in cooking than what I had planned. I’ve detailed the parts I readily took on, but I forgot about cleanup: the pans, the stove, the counter. And I forgot about storage: packing up whole meals for my intended recipients, finding space in my own refrigerator for a meal that would cover at least two dinners and two lunches.

The funny thing was that I had decided to multi-task: cooking while mentally putting together my next “End of Life Matters” column. The topic was to be on aging and relinquishment.

In my work with aging people over the past three decades, I’ve been moved by the heart-rending reality of what I have come to call relinquishment. At a time when I was a companion to an octogenarian friend, I was also a nanny to a newborn. 

Through the two years that followed, I watched my little baby boy sit up, crawl, walk, talk and take on the world, expanding his repertoire of motor skills, cognitive function and independence. At the same time, I provided support, a compassionate ear and my own ingenuity to help my friend adapt to her dependence on a wheelchair, her inability to chew favorite foods, her failing eyesight, fingers that no longer did what she wanted them to do and, in toto, a relinquishment of what she had come to know as the ability to perform the activities of daily living; activities she had performed for more than 80 years; activities she had long taken for granted; activities no longer available to her. 

More and more I personally face relinquishment. Washing the kitchen floor on hands and knees is something I think long and hard about. Digging around behind the couch for my grandson’s toy truck happens only after my attempts to distract him with a different toy have failed. And, after more than three decades of being an Oakland A’s season ticket holder of amazing seats in the front row behind home plate, I now am much more likely to happily settle into seats far above, closer to the concourse because, once I get down to those cherry seats, I’m hyper-focused on the reality that I’ll have to ascend those stairs to get to my car.

Of course, as the relinquishments show up, I recognize that the finish line is closer now. This is not a difficult reality for me to face. As my past columns have indicated, I’m fascinated by this phase of life. In fact, in many areas, just as with cooking, I’ve found some comfort in facing my new limitations. At times, I’m downright happy to say, “Naw, I can’t do that anymore.”

There are those in my circle who think I should “fight it”; that I’m giving up too easily. I maintain that, after years of cooking holiday meals, expressing my creativity through food preparation and feeding the masses (my masses anyway), I deserve to eat eggs sometimes for dinner. 

So, tonight, I’m relinquishing my role as cook; I’m relinquishing my habit of eagerly volunteering to provide a fancy dish for a dining experience with others; and I believe that I’m relinquishing my pride in ownership of a lovely array of cookbooks and specialty equipment. I don’t need them anymore. Partnering with Trader Joe’s will be a good thing.

We all know those who died suddenly before time had the opportunity to take away any of their grownup skills and privileges. They never had to keep dozens of reading glasses carefully placed throughout the house; they never had to rely on neighbors to help carry groceries into their houses; they never had to wonder which day will be the last day they will be safe driving a car.

It’s not that this is uncharted territory. It’s movingly maneuvered everyday by friends, neighbors and loved ones. But it’s not a comfortable conversation. And, until it is, we will all just keeping feeling our way through the dimming light, living in the realm of hope. Hope that we can drive one more time; hope we can pull off one more holiday meal; hope that we don’t look foolish or inept. Relinquishment is not failure, not capitulation. Relinquishment is a gift; a gift born of sticking around. 



Laurel Yeates is a daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, doula, nanny, Alameda Sun calendar editor and a nascent thanatologist.