I’ve lived with death or the anticipation of death for at least fifty years now. That was when my father died. His early departure somehow convinced me that my own would follow by the time I reached fifty. Bleak as that may sound, I learned to deal with these feelings in ways that have not limited the way I live. By emphasizing how fragile and uncertain life is, the nearness of death taught me to value and savor life much more.
While on friendly enough terms with death, I’ve kept old age at bay. The kind of limitations and decrepitude it spoke has remained someone else’s business—until recently.
Recently, a friend, Ronni Bennett, noted a comparable shift of consciousness. “When I started this blog back in 2004, there was literally nothing good being written anywhere in the popular press about growing old.” Everything people did write “made getting old sound so awful…that I thought then I might as well shoot myself at age 62.” Instead, Ronni, like almost every other aging blogger and memoirist, wrote about the virtues of aging. Lately, while struggling with pancreatic cancer, Ronni says that she’s come to believe that she’s “overdone the positive sides of aging or, maybe, underplayed the difficulties…Getting old is hard. Most younger people (including ourselves back then) have no idea what courage it takes to keep going in old age.”
She continues: “From simple aches and pains with or without a particular cause to the big deal “diseases of age” like cancer, heart disease and others that afflict elders in much greater numbers than young people to counting out medications, following special diets, exercises, etc., it takes a lot of work, a lot of gumption to grow old.”
Most of us who have crossed into the seventies know this list very well but, except among ourselves, limit our complaints. There are many reasons why. To begin, we know that young people don’t especially want to know. It bores them. It frightens them. It represents a kind of burden or potential burden . Then, again, we, ourselves, don’t want to know. We don’t want to project a terrible future for ourselves. We are also afraid of not being taken seriously, of being discarded, which is what happens when we emphasize our diminishment. Then, too, we have our own deeply internalized injunctions against kvetching and making a burden of ourselves. Some of us retain certain arrogant ideas about ourselves—others my age are diminished but not me. I’m stronger than most. Translated, this means that we believe ourselves to be more virtuous.
I visited Alaska recently and met a women who fashioned herself a tough old bird. She had read a few of my essays, liked them well enough to talk with me, and wondered if I wanted some feedback. “Of course,” said I. A week later, she wrote back a scathing critique of my “whining.” What’s the solution to the vulnerability I wanted to articulate as prelude to my wondrously positive conclusions? “Buck up,” she advised. My new Alaskan friend might be tougher than most, but she represents feelings that many, maybe most of us share: a preference for stoicism.
On January 2, I had shoulder surgery, nothing compared to Ronni’s struggles. But it is a notoriously painful operation, making it hard to sleep, unable to move freely—the shoulder and arm have to be immobilized for five or six weeks. The sleeplessness and inaction along with oxicodone and Tylenol dulled my mind, limiting me to reading pulp fiction and staring glumly at TV series. I have needed help with almost everything, from dressing to making a cup of coffee. Having built a life around a an overly independent and highly active temperament, the neediness and dependence have been depressing. Even as I reminded myself that this condition should be brief, I didn’t entirely believe it.
In youth, I’d readily write off such fears as neurotic and momentary. That was then. At my age and with the spate of illnesses, injuries, and surgeries I have had during the last few years, these premonitions seemed apt and not so exaggerated.
Of course I still have the freedom to respond to these ‘realizations’ in many different ways. Stoically, for example, is my default position and I still do it pretty well. Denial is a second strategy. But I don’t do denial very well. I’ve always been pretty honest with myself. If I see a trend—more injuries and illnesses, leading to greater inaction and dependence—I see a trend. My best temperamental quality, though, is my belief that I will see difficulties through, that I will ultimately learn and profit from them. If, in old age, I can’t return to athletic form, I can at least grow wiser.
That belief has been the gist of my essays: transforming lemons into lemonade; learning from fears and vulnerabilities; growing deeper through insight into my problems. I have long seen this kind of learning as the road to wisdom, and wisdom has long been my goal. So why would I deny or shuck off the very experiences from which I learn the most.
For the simple reason that the promise to cross over from struggle to triumph, to emerge on the other side, seems less of a sure thing when you are older—and older in that new country where you are likely to face more and more powerful challenges with diminishing resources at hand.
Confronted with this very vivid reality, there is a second, strangely attractive path to follow. Yielding to age, suffering, dependence and all of those terrifying possibilities. There is something seductive in diminishment. It’s like the approach of a lover who is both beautiful and ugly. She’s singing a quiet song, promising comfort: come to me; it’s not so bad. Be honest. Just look at yourself. You can’t deny the decline. Why fight it?
As with everyone I know, some small part of me has always wanted to give up. When I’m challenged. When I’m defeated. When I’m down. When I simply don’t want to please all those voices in my that have urged me to keep trying, to succeed, to be strong, to be good. They have been such powerful voices that, paradoxically, part of me has also wanted to defy them. Yielding to the siren song of resignation can seem restful, peaceful. “I’ve done what I’ve done and don’t have to do any more. At last, I can rest.”
But I’m not ready to rest—not yet; hopefully, not for a long time; and there may be something for me to learn from crossing into a new reality of old age.
Oddly enough, old age feels new, and, in spite of the great metrics of my recent bloodwork, my shoulder surgery, my broken wrist, and my hiatal hernia, seem to have hurried ushered me into old age. I’ll have to wander in this new territory, get the lay of the land, figure out how not to dwell in its terrors, and, by keeping an open mind, learn to observe what is deep, beautiful, and lively. How strange. To come a new place and, once again, become a learner.