Monday, March 12, 2007

ON AGING

American rocket scientist Robert H. Goddard has been quoted as saying:
"Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant with the weak and wrong...because sometime in your life you will have been all of these."

I like the quote. Yet in all my life I've never imagined that I would ever be old. I just couldn't picture it.

My mother died at 53. My father died at 55. I was in my early 20’s when I became an orphan. Somehow in my mind, mid fifties became a logical lifespan to me. As a young woman, those years seemed many, many miles away.

However, time has shifted and seasons have passed. I will turn 50 this October. As I am fast approaching the ages my parents were when they met death, it feels very surreal to me that I could be so close to the end of my wick. Holy Moses, I'm just BEGINNING to get this life thing figured out.

Obviously, I have no crystal ball to know how long I have to walk on this earth. I’m in reasonably good health. (But then, so were they.) One day my father was alive, hammering new shingles on his roof. He went to bed as full of piss and vinegar as ever, then woke up dead. My mother was having a surgery. It was serious, yes, but fairly routine. She never made it off the table. They say no single thing really went wrong. She just never came back again. Those events permanently marked in my mind that there are no guarantees...we can be here one day and gone the next with no preamble or warning. They also made me determined to live my life to the fullest each day with no regrets or words left unsaid, because I just never expected to have all that many of them.

When I was a little kid, I couldn't wait to be "all grown up". I would proudly tack on the "and-a-half" to my age just as soon as I could justify it. Each rite of passage of crossing over to maturity seemed like a special prize to me. Yet as I emerged into a stormy, rebellious adolescence, I began taking vast chances with my mortality, acting out in extreme ways, saying I didn't care if I lived to see thirty. Sadly, many of my compatriots from those wild and turbulent days did not. How I came through it all relatively unscathed is a mystery to me still.

My early twenties were spent in a trainwreck of chaos. At some point I reached an epiphany that allowed me to turn things around and climb out of the darkness. Gratefully, my thirties were a time of calmer, safer, saner days. There was much effort and striving, of nesting, achieving, sorting out. Life was unquestionably better then, but there was still a degree of reverberation in my emotions and my spirit as I wrestled with making my peace with the past.

It wasn't until my forties that I really felt I began to bloom.

When I hit forty an artist friend of mine created a beautiful card for me...I've still got it around here somewhere although right now I'm not sure where. On the front of the card there is a black silhouette of a woman running with delightful abandoned down the side of a very steep pointed hill. Her arms are outstretched and her hair is flying. It's a great image. The joy and satisfaction just seeps from the picture.

Then you open the card up and the inscription reads: "FINALLY! You are OVER THE HILL!"

I loved the metaphor. For me, coming of age into my forties meant being done once and for all with all the struggle to climb up the life mountain of self discovery and drive to prove myself. Days of graduate school, child rearing, entry level jobs and so many other life battles were finally behind me. I had loved raising my boys and had enjoyed my years as a stay-at-home mom. But I welcomed this new time when I could fully participate in the world in new ways.

Being "middle aged" meant I had earned the right to embrace my opinions, preferences, beliefs and desires with no apology. I never had to worry again whether others thought they were cool or legitimate. No longer burdened by other people's ideas of fashion or music, politics or housekeeping, I was done with agonizing over my path. I was comfortable in my own skin and ready to dig deep into the life I had chosen.

Because I had kids so young, both my boys were emancipated (geographically anyway). My forties were a time when I could travel freely and focus on career with new dedication. I had more time and energy to get involved in causes that mattered to me. I was more financially secure than I'd been in the past. Best of all, I could rediscover my husband as partner more than co-parent. That was a revelation to me. We had some grand adventures, a few horrible heartaches, and a lot of sweet days of bliss. I loved my 4th decade. It was a sweet, juicy time to be savored in my life.

And now the curtain is about to close on those years and I will begin a new season - my fifties. Already I am starting to see that this season will have some tough lessons. Coming to term with loss is inevitably a big part of later years. Already I'm finding I attend more funerals than weddings. There is no doubt in my mind that the next few years will bear more of them. I can see it coming as surely as the trees dropping their leaves in the fall.

My body will change...sooner or later the moon season will matter less to me; My skin will grow thin. My hair will get coarse.

And if I should live even beyond my fifties - outlasting my parents by decades or more, what then? Will I have health? Will I have enough money? Will I be a cranky old biddy or a serene matriarch? It's anybody's guess.

How will I face my next season? What will I be like as an old woman? I really can't say.

I've always maintained that it wouldn't matter how old I got, so long as I was loving, learning, and laughing along the way. But I'm pragmatic enough to recognize that days when doctor appointments and hope for a proper bowel movement take most of your energy can make savoring life a challenge for most anyone.

Many of my friends now are dealing with caring for ill, elderly parents. I never walked that path. Some days when I visit families dealing with dementia, diabetes, oncologists and proctologists, I wonder how our family would have coped. I've heard it said we never get given greater burdens than we can bear... maybe the universe knew that wasn't something for our brood to contend with. But without having crossed that bridge with a parent, I haven't a clue about how to do it for myself.

When I look into the faces of some of the elderly people I know, I see the struggle with failing bodies, failing finances, failing memories, and it causes a catch in my breath. I hope that the next ten or twenty or however many years I have will be good ones. I recognize there is bound to be pain and difficulty to be sure. That's part of life. But I'm crossing my fingers and toes and praying with all my might that my sense of self will remain strong, my ability to contribute will continue, my chance to connect in meaningful ways will keep expanding even as my vigor begins to fade.

My greatest fear in the world in terms of what I anticipate for the years to come is not death or even disability - but far more frightening, the possibility of losing my beloved. My husband is 12 years older than I and has a few health issues even now. That man is my life, my soul's very breath. I cannot imagine a world without him. I shudder to think of wearing the title of widow. So I mostly try not to think of it at all. And yet...the possibility that it may be some part of my future is something I have considered more and more in recent years, usually with dread.

In most respects, in my mind growing old means coming to terms with loss and letting go... letting go of my youth and some of my dreams. Letting go of my belief that things will keep getting better. Letting go of some of the people I've loved. I see it as a season of coming to terms with grief on a much more regular and intimate basis than the few kamikaze grenades I've had to deal with thus far.

I hope I can go into my fifties and further with some peace and pleasure. Right now I feel like a skittish swimmer standing on the edge of a pond, slowly, carefully, filled with apprehension, daring to reach across to just stick my toes in. I'm not sure what it will take to give me the confidence to just plaster a grin on my face and dive in with abandon as I did in my forties. I'm feeling cautious with myself. I am nervous about what's around the bend.

I want to hold on tight to all the love and strength and opportunity that I have in my life now. I'm not ready to give any of it up just yet. I'm like a little kid being told it's about time to go to bed, but instead of going quietly I'm desperately, defiantly pleading for just five minutes more. I'm not ready to be old.

Yet my sweet husband just laughs at my reticence. He says that rather than grow old together he will go first, blazing the trail for me, and then reach back to bring me along, showing me the ropes. Just like when we've gone hiking through snow drifts together, or bushwhacking in the deep woods...he'll cut the path to ease the way for me. The trail will be rough going in spots. But the vistas and views along the way will make the journey worthwhile. So long as I can continue to hold on to the back of his shirt, I know I'll be just fine.

********
For links to what others have said in the woman-to-woman conversation on aging please visit Morning Glory of Seeds From My Garden or Lei of My Many Colored Days.

15 comments:

jenclair said...

I love the quote that opens your essay. And I've had some experience with the situations mentioned. My mother died a year ago in December after a long battle with lung cancer, my father suffers from Alzheimer's, a friend has suffered from 4 brain tumors over the last 30 years, and well, all of the conditions that life makes you aware of. Including the joy of two daughters, one of whom has given us two lovely grandchildren.

At 58, I feel young and vital most of the time, but the effects of aging are only being kept at bay. Still, turning 50 was a freeing experience for me, and despite the grief of seeing one's parents old and ill, the rewards have been great.

Your description of middle-age and "the right to embrace my opinions, preferences, beliefs and desires with no apology" has continued and intensified as I've lived through this decade of the 50's. I've not always felt equal to some of the difficult tasks of caring for loved ones in decline, but those tasks have only diminished me temporarliy, and I've been able to rebound after every set back. I don't think I would have had that mental and emotional flexibility earlier in my life.

This post is both lovely and thought-provoking. Thanks for visiting my blog and leading me to yours!

Morning Glory said...

I remember when I surpassed my mother's age at her death (she was 53) and I remarked that I had outlived her. I know that feeling that sort of creeps in -- will death find me at that age too? You have truly lived the adventure of your life with an openness that is refreshing.

I love your thought on earning the right to embrace our opinions. Thank you so much for participating in this.

Tigersue said...

What a lovely post. I can tell it truly came from your heart. Thank you for sharing.

Marie said...

A wonderful post. I'm 30, but my parents married late and are in their early 60s. I wonder what their next decade will be like and how steep the learning curve will be if they need me to care for them. They are in relatively good health, but like you said, that's no guarantee for tomorrow. I"m especially afraid of Alzheimers, which my grandfather had for years.

I think this transition into the stage of "learning to lose" is especially hard for Americans. We're so used to having control over so many things, and our national culture is one of "if you try hard enough you can overcome anything." While we definitely fear the loss of beauty, I think our core fear is the general loss of that control that we've grown up believing we're entitled to. "If we could just pour enough money into enough research, I could live five more years!" While death is hard in any culture, I think those who have lived with more uncertainty their whole lives perhaps are not so jolted when, as you say, the number of funerals surpasses the number of marriages.

I loved what they said about John Paul II's decline in health -- something like "after he had taught us how to live, he taught us how to die." It's no small lesson to learn how to accept gracefully the indignities of age. I hope I'm up to it when it comes.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

Dawn said...

Very well thought out and written. My MIL (88) is going through the "bowel" thing - and talks about it to everyone. Her soul mate died in September at 93. It has been a challenge for all of us. My parents are 81 and 78, and Dad just went through pneumonia, which I wrote about earlier this week. Facing their mortality, when they're always seemed so young as parents to me, is difficult to look forward to.

Lisa M. said...

This was refreshing.

Thank you-

An Ordinary Mom said...

Thank you so much for sharing all your thoughts and inner feelings This was a beautiful and heart felt post.

Here's to another great season in your life!

Lei said...

Beautiful! Just beautiful! I love the quote you used to begin... we shoudl post that on the "Woman to Woman" bulletin board!

I lost my mother a few years ago... she was 48. It was a surreal expereince, and to think of life ending so early boggles me. Now knowingly, I think of my life span according to her age. A lot. So I can relate to you on that point.

Thatnk you for participating. I hope you'll join us again!

Susie said...

I really enjoyed reading this post and could relate to many of your concerns. I'm somewhat older than you, but I think the one line that rang true for me was your fear of losing your beloved husband. That thought frightens me beyond anything else in this world.
Great post!
:)

Linds said...

Hi there... I was SO sure I had posted a comment to your post today! Blogger has been playing up though.
In answer to your question re women here and the youth culture, I would say it applies to the young, all over the world, but not so much to the vast majority of older women. Sure, everyone tries to look their best, but there does not seem to be an obsession at all. Well, certainly not with the many I know!
Growing older is inevitable, and there is no mass desire to regain one's youth.
This is what is so fascinating about blogging. We can learn so much from each other. Even as we grow older!

Zoe said...

Wow! What a rich life . . . full of experiences. Even though, I hope that your life span is longer than your parents. That was probably so hard to go through. But, I can see that it made your who you are . . . in your skin.

Zoe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mel said...

What a beautiful post! Thanks for sharing.

Penless Thoughts said...

To me honesty is one of the greatest virtues and you've certainly been honest in this post.

As some one much older than you I can tell you from experience that getting older for me has been nothing but pure pleasure.

Kate said...

Hello! Lovely to "meet" you...thank you for stopping by my place. I so appreciated reading what you had to say about aging...what a pleasant perspective. I really was touched by what you said about your hubby! :) Have a blessed day!

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