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.