Why is “older” an acceptable word and “old” almost forbidden?
To answer my own question, I suppose it’s because we’re all growing older, even the four-year-old next door. But old … ah, old smacks of incompetence, of irrelevance. Even worse, old smacks of that truly obscene-to-our-society word … death.
I am approaching my birthday month. It won’t be a “big” dividable-by-five birthday, but still one that feels significant for the number it stands close to. I will be 79 next month.
Can you name the number?
Forty didn’t trouble me a bit. I had a friend, several years older than I, who, when I turned forty, said, “Forty is such a fine age. It’s the first number you reach that has any authority, but you still feel so young.” And she was right! I sailed into 40 feeling mature, confident … and still young.
Sixty-five slipped past without much fanfare. As a working writer I wasn’t facing retirement, after all. Moreover, I could sign up for Social Security and Medicare, and for the self-employed that is no small thing. I’d been paying in, both the employee and the employer side, for a long time, and at last it was going to come back to me. Given the difficulty and expense of buying health insurance that isn’t handed down through an employer, being able to get Medicare was an even bigger deal. (I will never understand the flap in this country about “socialized medicine.” That’s what Medicare is, and it works! It works better than any other pay-for-care system this backward system offers.)
When I turned seventy my daughter threw me a big party … at my request, I should add. It was a lovely party, and it exhausted me. Mostly it reminded me that I’ve never liked parties.
“I won’t ask you to do that again,” I said.
She, who has always been a loving and willing daughter, said, “Good!”
But this is 79! And yes, I might as well name the number. Eighty is a very short hop, skip and hobble down the road!
It’s the first time I find myself facing changes in my body that I know I don’t have the power to fix. Not that I’ve given up trying. I walk vigorously two of three times a day. I do Pilates three times a week. I stretch and I meditate and I eat healthfully and I practice excellent sleep hygiene. Actually, my sleep hygiene is better and more reliable than my sleep. But my body continues on its ever-so-predictable downward trajectory.
From time to time, bits fall off.
And my mind? That’s harder to define and even harder to talk about. I can still produce a workable manuscript. I can still offer a useful critique of someone else’s manuscript, too. But I find myself too often going back to the refrigerator to locate the eggs I’ve just set out on the counter or struggling in the evening to remember some detail of what I’ve done that morning.
My omelets still please the palate, though, and I’ve shown up wherever I was expected to be in the morning and done whatever I said I would do.
Arriving at a place called old in this culture is a matter for some amazement. Who is ever prepared? After all, old has never been something to aspire to … despite the alternative. A friend said recently, “I went from wolf whistles to invisibility in a heartbeat.” And I went from “cutting-edge” to “veteran author” in the same incomprehensibly short time.
I find I want more than anything else to use these years I’ve been gifted, however many or few they may be. I want to use them to deepen my acceptance of my own life, blunders and accomplishments all. I want to use them to enrich the peace my presence brings to a room.
I want to use these years to live. Not just to move through my days stacking accomplishments, one on top of another. I have enough of those. We all have enough of those.
I want to use these years to breathe, deeply and mindfully. And now, being old, I want use these final years to be grateful for every, every breath.
Marion, thank you for this lovely, gracious essay. I’m only a few years behind you, so it resonated with me. I’m sorry we don’t live close enough to discuss this over tea!
best wishes and happy birthday–