The Big O has new meaning as women age

Since being diagnosed in November, days before Thanksgiving, I have taken a chalky white pill with a full glass of water every Thursday morning, on an empty stomach. Then I have stood or sat upright for an hour before enjoying my customary coffee with microwaved milk, so the medicine can be absorbed and won’t irritate the esophagus (my “food pipe”).

Initially, I was angry:

  • At a healthcare system that didn’t warn me years ago that bone density could be an issue for a woman who is white, thin, of northern European heritage, with a small frame and a mother who took Fosomax herself for years.
  • At a nurse practitioner who had seen me before my 65th birthday in July and never mentioned it was time for another bone density scan. I discovered that on my own while clicking through MyChart months later to verify an appointment and saw a notice that my scan was “overdue.”
  • At a culture that pressured women to be model thin when I was young. Twiggy was a skinny, 16-year-old kid when the media started marketing her as the ideal body type for women. Even Gloria Steinem, for all her intellect and accomplishments, became the face of the 1970s-era women’s movement in part because she, too, was thin and pretty.

“I have to focus more on being strong than being thin,” I wrote on Facebook shortly after my diagnosis of thinning bones. Enough crowing about keeping a closet full of clothes from my 40s and 50s “because they still fit.” Or celebrating that I weigh less than I did when I got pregnant with my older son, who was born in 1990. Or preferencing cardio exercise, which gives me an emotional lift, over the tougher, more monotonous work of lifting weights.

One of my sisters was nurturing and supportive, texting or calling to offer tips about the benefits of Pilates or which calcium-rich foods to eat. (Who knew that ice cream, eggnog and fortified frozen waffles would make the list, alongside kale and broccoli?)

My oldest sister, the pragmatic one, issued a simple challenge: What are you going to do about it?

Name it, claim it

The word itself scares me. Osteoporosis conjures up images of an old, wizened woman whose upper back has curved into a question mark. My reluctance to name the disease, to say the word aloud, is both a symbol and a symptom of my denial. Just as I resisted the label alcoholic when I recognized in my early 40s that I needed to quit drinking, I now reference my “bone density issue.”

Osteoporosis is for old people; osteoporosis, like forgetfulness and a thickening middle, is for my late mother. Thinning bones don’t afflict people who are fit and who exercise as much as I do.

Or so I thought. Physically active throughout my life — a seasoned cyclist, a walker who averages 16,000 steps a day, a former aerobics instructor who still loves to take yoga classes — I was stunned that thinning bones could be a problem. When the nurse practitioner handed me a printout from Mayo Clinic at my follow-up appointment, I noted that none of the “lifestyle choices” that increase risk of osteoporosis apply to me:

  1. Sedentary lifestyle. I have a hard time sitting still. “You’re in fifth gear or asleep,” my husband likes to say.
  2. Excessive alcohol consumption. I haven’t had a drink since January 10, 2010.
  3. Tobacco use. I never could inhale.

“This is not your fault,” the nurse practitioner assured me after I told her I was scared. But the diagnosis, especially on the cusp of snow and ice season in Minnesota, felt like a slippery slide into old age — like “being suddenly Old and Fragile,” as one friend aptly put it.

How would I walk my dogs every morning when falling could more easily break my bones? Would I have to abandon biking come spring, a sport I have loved since I was 5, because a tumble could sideline me forever? Exercise and movement are my sanity, my way of coping with stress, my increasingly tenuous hold on independence, my illusion that I will be forever young.

As the shock has worn off, I have moved gradually toward acceptance, and into action. Do something now, or you’ll pay later. That much is clear.

Bone up

Watching my weight was something I could control in a world that (still) tries to control women’s bodies. Now, I apply that discipline to self-care for my bones.

One lesson I’ve learned already is to take charge of my own healthcare. In a system still exhausted and under-resourced from COVID, no doctor is going to walk me through this. Doing my own research and seeking support from friends and family members, including my weight-lifting sons, have pulled me out of the muck of fear and self-pity.

  • Thursday is Fosomax day, with a weekly reminder on my calendar. The hour of being upright and foregoing any nourishment but water is peaceful and productive quiet time.
  • I lift free weights two to three times a week and am relishing growing stronger.
  • I have started taking a Pilates Fusion class designed for people with arthritis and osteoporosis, with special emphasis on strengthening back, glute and abdominal muscles.
  • I no longer skip my daily calcium and Vitamin D3 supplements.

That my diagnosis came on the cusp of a major life change — a step away from a full-time career, and all the status and identity and financial security that brought me — has made osteoporosis seem both an indignity and oddly well timed, a gentle push into the next phase of life and a firm reminder to accept reality and deal with it.

“Everyone hopes to reach old age, but when it comes, most of us complain about it,” the Roman philosopher Cicero said. Had I not been searching the website for tips on healthy bones, I never would have stumbled upon “Lessons on Successful Aging,” derived from Cicero’s 2,000-year-old essay “On Old Age.”

Among the lessons relative to women at this later stage of life:

  1. A good old age begins in youth. I can wish that I had started lifting weights at a younger age, but I cannot change the habits or negligence of the past. All I can do is develop new patterns now.
  2. We can be active in old age, with limitations. Winter biking will never be a sport I’ll pursue, just as jogging outdoors in winter now seems foolhardy.
  3. Youth and old age differ. Longing for what was keeps us stuck in the past and blocks us from embracing the benefits of aging.

Osteoporosis, the Big O for older women, is my necessary reminder that good health is neither a given nor guaranteed.

Christmas doesn’t matter anymore, but it’s still important

Christmas is upon us, and I am barely present for it this year.

Amid health scares, a whole lot of winter weather and adapting to my shift from full-time career to part-time work from home, my husband and I never bothered to buy a tree. In years past we got a free Douglas fir from a colleague at my workplace, but since leaving there I can’t justify the effort — or the money — to purchase a tree, cajole my husband into setting it up, decorating it and then reverse-ordering those tasks once the needles start to hit the floor in January.

The rituals don’t mean as much without children in the house, and the dogs are indifferent.

I’m giving gift certificates and cash to my two grown sons, and my husband and I agreed to forego material gifts in favor of joint outings during the week I am off between Christmas and New Year’s. Being tourists in our city, we call it, eating in restaurants we haven’t tried, visiting museums we never get to and haunting antique stores for just the right find.

As I did last year, I asked my siblings to forego their thoughtful but unnecessary gifts of chocolate, cheese and boxed fruit in favor of donating to one of my two favorites causes — reproductive freedom (Planned Parenthood North Central States) and hunger relief (Keystone Community Services). And I, in turn, donated to causes of theirs.

No, I’m not a Scrooge or a Grinch. I keep my wraparound porch trimmed with colored lights throughout the year and remain susceptible to the emotional uplift of “Silent Night” or “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” hymns I well remember from my Methodist upbringing. But neither do I celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday any longer. (“I’m a Unitarian, not a Trinitarian,” I explained recently to a friend.)

And so in a year when I have turned 65, undergone a life-shifting career change and been hit with a medical diagnosis that forces me to reshape my approach to exercise, eating and self-care, I have neither the time nor the energy — nor the desire — to invest in the secular rituals that inspire many people to overspend, overconsume and overdo throughout the month of December.

Christmas Eve, our usual family gathering time, will be at the house that my younger son and his partner purchased earlier this year. “I can’t celebrate Christmas without a tree,” he told me recently at our monthly family dinner. So, I suggested that he host. “It’s their turn,” I told one of my older sisters, who likewise has ceded most holiday celebrations to her grown kids. My role is to cook chicken wild rice soup and bake spoon bread — and then allow a new tradition to unfold.

Aging changes the holiday season, or at least it has for me. I don’t need anything, so why ask for gifts? What I want (earrings, snowshoes, warm leggings, winter gloves), I would rather buy myself.

I am earning less than when I was working full time, which has me looking askance at all the stuff we distract ourselves with, the needless crap that eventually will end up in a landfill, like the Roomba hitting my feet during a recent meeting at a coffee shop. How hard is it to sweep the wooden floor?

I’ve recycled a dozen holiday catalogs that have shown up at my house unbidden, unwanted. Filled with cardigans, scarves, wool socks, monogrammed bathrobes, DVD collections of classic TV shows, dog- or cat-themed throw pillows and flowing tops without a waistline, the catalogs are clearly targeting women of a certain age and era.

Bathtub reading, if nothing else, worth browsing for the amusing T-shirts:

  • The Proper Term for ‘Senior’ Women Should Be Queen-Agers (Acorn)
  • Don’t Rush Me. I’m Waiting for the Last Minute
  • Never trust an atom. They make up everything.
  • I don’t mind getting older but my body is taking it badly.
  • I’m silently correcting your grammar. (Signals)
  • Moses was the first person with a tablet, downloading data from the cloud
  • 90 Percent of Being Married Is Yelling ‘What?’ From Other Rooms.
  • Underestimate me. That’ll be fun.
  • I sometimes wonder what happened to people who have asked me for directions (Shop PBS)
  • Don’t look back. You’re not going that way.

It’s all fine. It’s fun. But it’s a waste. The catalogs are full of the nothing-you-need stuff that make gift stores so seductive. How much will you pay for a scented candle or a pound of specially wrapped coffee beans that weighs only 12 ounces?

And yet: I was moved to tears a week ago during a Christmas concert at a historic Catholic church when my son’s partner, Tess, who has been singing since childhood, performed with the all-female Partners in Praise choir. They concluded the evening by walking down the aisle and stopping along the way to place a hand on the shoulder of a loved one. While the soprano and alto voices sang the Irish hymn “May the Road Rise Up to Meet You,” I felt tears spontaneously streaming down my face. Not because Tess’ voice was beautiful, though it is. Not because I was witness to how much she loves my son, and he her.

No, I wept for the little boys who are grown up men now, who have their own homes, their own lives. I cried for all the people who aren’t here anymore, the parents and sibling and sister-in-law and friends whom I can’t call up to talk to — though I long to have those conversations — and whom I, as an unconventional believer, am unsure I will ever see again.

Christmas is quieter than it used to be, and so I tell myself that is what I want. I say that I’m relieved not to navigate the politics and resentments of divorced parents and multiple households to visit, the strains of putting on a meaningful celebration for small children all while working and commuting and having too little time and money.

When I walk the half mile to Grand Avenue on Sunday morning and board the #63 bus that will take me to Unity Church-Unitarian for the “Small Wonders” service that acknowledges Christmas Day, I will be by myself. But I won’t be alone.

My mom, my stepmother, my father, my son’s godmother Peggy, my friend D.L., my beloved older brother, Fred: All will be with me — in my mind, if nowhere else. And that will be Christmas enough for me.

Our Bodies, Ourselves: Faces of the Resistance

On the bleakest day for American women in my lifetime, the texts and the tears started flying back and forth within seconds of the New York Times news flash on my iPhone.

“It happened,” I texted a friend who is a leader in the abortion rights movement in Minnesota.

A rally at Planned Parenthood in May 2022, after the U.S. Supreme Court decision leaked

Her one-word answer described the swamp I stayed stuck in all day after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion nationwide on January 22, 1973. I was 15 and a half years old. I am 65 now. That means I had the safety and protection of legal abortion throughout my reproductive years, a right that my two grown sons will not inherit.

“Shit,” my friend responded, placing a period after the single word in her text, as though to emphasize the finality, the inevitability. Then she helped organize a massive vigil in downtown Minneapolis at 5:30 that afternoon, Friday, June 24, 2022.

“Join us in grief, rage, and in loving community,” her email invitation said. Contrary to stereotypes about the godless nature of pro-choice activists, my friend is a minister.

A counter-protestor outside Planned Parenthood in St. Paul on Black Friday

Amid the dozens of articles, headlines and notes from radio broadcasts or podcasts that I have saved since June 24 — “Roe Ruling, Remapping Turned Tide,” about the DFL sweep of the Minnesota statehouse; “Democrats Flip Script in Abortion Rights Debate,” from the New York Times; “Covert Network Provides Pills for Thousands of Abortion in U.S. Post Roe,” in the Washington Post; “Court at Odds with Public,” two days after a decision that has stripped a generation of their rights — one quote stands alone.

“Women didn’t talk about it much, they didn’t do a bunch of marches and protests, they didn’t post on social media, they probably didn’t even tell their husbands,” GOP strategist and former Senate majority leader Amy Koch told the Star Tribune after her party’s defeat in the midterms. “But they were ticked off and they went out to vote.”

A day after Roe v. Wade fell, I tabled for Planned Parenthood at the Pride festival in Minneapolis.

She got the last part right. But Koch’s assumption that women were disengaged from the debate — that any woman who cares about the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health is, by definition, heterosexual and married — and that many people, of all genders, have not been out marching, protesting, phone banking and strategizing on social media is, to my experience, just plain wrong.

It also helps explain why Republicans fell short in this year’s midterm elections in Minnesota (“State GOP Surveys Wreckage” was the headline for this piece). “Never underestimate the power of a small group of people to change the world,” anthropologist Margaret Mead once said. Especially if those people have lost their rights.

I know a 32-year-old man who got a vasectomy within weeks of the Dobbs decision, not wanting to put a female partner through an unwanted pregnancy and certain that he never wanted kids himself. I have a good friend, a lesbian, who came to the United States from Europe as a child; she and her wife are contemplating moving back to her liberal homeland, where she doesn’t have to fear that their legal marriage could be undone.

“What happens to all the babies born into unsafe conditions?” asked a report on National Public Radio the Monday morning after the Dobbs decision was announced. States with the strictest abortion laws also tend to have the fewest social services, the program host pointed out.

My neighbor, like me, is more than a decade past her reproductive years. We feel this decision deeply, especially as mothers — her to three daughters, me to two sons — but we wouldn’t primarily feel its effects. White, middle-class, still supported by the safety net with which I was raised, I could afford to cross state lines for a safe and legal abortion, if I were of childbearing age and wasn’t lucky enough to live in Minnesota, an oasis of sanity and compassion in the Upper Midwest.

A pregnant woman displays her baby bump at an abortion rights rally in July.

Thirteen states have enacted laws banning abortion with limited exceptions since the Dobbs decision. I am hosting a fundraiser for 30 people this coming Saturday for Our Justice, an organization that raises money to house women seeking abortion care in our state. This is what we’ve come to: individual solutions in individual states, as though women’s autonomy were not a national value (which, of course, it’s not).

I saw a woman last summer at the dog park with a T-shirt that read: Pro-Cat, Pro-Feminist, Pro-Choice. “I agree with all but one of those,” I told her, and then I paused before dropping the punchline: “I’m allergic to cats.” The woman told me she’s a teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools and can’t wear political T-shirts or buttons to her job. So she wears a pro-choice T-shirt when she’s out running errands on weekends and notes whether anyone responds.

A handmaid, by definition, is a “subservient partner or element.”

The first time I saw a Handmaid’s Tale outfit at a pro-choice rally was at the Minnesota State Capitol in spring 2019. “Since you creeps won’t get out of our bedrooms, we’re coming for your House,” the woman’s sign read. I didn’t know then that the costume would become contentious, that women of color whose earlier family members had no choices, who had no agency over their bodies, would see it as another symbol of white, clueless privilege. Still, at that time and place, it was powerful for me.

Nearly three years later, in May 2022, the same outfit had a more chilling effect at a Planned Parenthood rally after the Supreme Court’s draft document leaked, once the reality of Roe’s demise felt closer, more real. This Handmaid paused after consenting to have her photo taken, striking the pose of submission that personifies the point novelist Margaret Atwood was trying to make when her book — now better known as a TV series on Hulu —was published in 1985.

A reproductive rights rally at the State Capitol this past July brought out thousands of people who looked more angry than afraid. I shouted out information about the event till I was hoarse on June 25, the day after the Supreme Court decision was announced. I was tabling for Planned Parenthood at the Pride festival in Minneapolis alongside another Boomer woman who had shared her abortion story at a rally the previous day. She left our shift early, emotionally drained and physically spent.

By contrast, I found the energy and support at the Pride festival to be inspiring, a spirited day of action that helped me feel less frightened and alone.

Thousands of people gathered at the Minnesota State Capitol on July 17, 2022.

“I don’t see the point of going to a rally,” my husband said before I convinced him to join me at Planned Parenthood’s Twin Cities headquarters back in May. Similarly, a letter writer told the Star Tribune right after the Dobbs decision: “I guess the rallies are supposed to send a message to [elected officials], but I believe personal messages have more impact.”

It’s the energy, the camaraderie, the crazy and creative signs, the righteous outrage, the relief of being among like-minded people in a society that has turned right so hard and fast it leaves me bruised: Those are the reasons to attend a rally.

The National Day of Action in Minneapolis in October 2021

At the National Day of Action, dubbed the Women’s March, in Minneapolis on October 2, 2021, I volunteered to get people on the mailing list for UnRestrict Minnesota, a coalition of groups focused on reproductive rights, racial equity and gender equality. Then I started taking photos of T-shirts and signs. Some were provocative (“If my uterus could fire bullets, you wouldn’t regulate it”), others straightforward (“Patriarchy hurts everyone” and “Racist people suck”).

But one spoke volumes by speaking the simple truth. It quoted Ruth Bader Ginsburg during her Senate confirmation hearing for the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993, perhaps the last time a prospective jurist was honest about their views on Roe v. Wade, which declared abortion to be constitutionally protected.

Data show that women of color will be more greatly affected by the revocation of Roe.

“The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity,” the sign said, quoting Ginsburg flawlessly. “It is a decision she must make for herself. When government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.”

Donald Trump may never set foot in the White House again. But he will leave behind a legacy of a six-judge conservative majority on a nine-person court that will undo the social progress of my youth. Our downfall as liberals and progressives, in the 2016 presidential election and beyond, was that we failed to see it coming. Instead, we bickered among ourselves, refused to coalesce around a candidate and hated on Mitch McConnell rather than emulating his focus.

Being right doesn’t matter once your rights are gone.