I had my annual eye check-up yesterday. Step One was sitting in a little room with two women, having my vision tested. One woman barked out orders – “Is 1 better or 2? how about 3?” and then said something I didn’t understand to the other woman, who wrote it down. I dislike this test intensely, since 1 and 2 and 3 never look all that different to me, and it makes me feel I’m lacking in some kind of important sensitivity.
After a while Barking Woman started to have a different sound in her voice, as though there was something seriously wrong. They had been talking just to each other, those two women, making me feel like a blob in a petri dish, and I never take kindly to that sort of treatment. So I decided to break protocol and speak up. They were startled, they’d obviously forgotten I was a complete person there, but they’re MY eyes dammit.
“The way you’re saying those mysterious things sounds like there’s something wrong with my eyes. What is it you’re finding?”
“Well, let’s see. How old you?”
“Oh! That explains it! You look so much younger. There’s nothing at all unusual here.”
“You mean whatever it is would be unusual if I were younger, but it’s par for the course for us old ladies?” (I can’t explain it, I love referring to myself as an old lady. A year ago my daughter Kate made me a deal: if I stopped doing that she’d stop biting her cuticles. I notice she’s still biting, so I’m off the hook).
“That’s right. Now, which of these two bars is brighter?”
So I got to thinking, since there was nothing else to do while I waited for my eyes to dilate (Step Two) because I’d forgotten to bring something to listen to. Almost everyone works hard to keep looking as young as possible as long as possible. But after my encounter with Barking Lady I began to wonder whether that’s really the smart thing to do. She had certain expectations of my eyes just because she thought I was younger, and her voice did sound not only worried but kind of disapproving. I know, I know, I was projecting much too much drama into the scene, she was just doing her boring job, hoping 5 o’clock would come soon.
What I began to realize was that I also have certain expectations of myself because I look younger, and that’s where the real trouble is. Lots of people these days look younger than they are, and younger than people our ages looked even 25 years ago. The expectations get more and more demanding. It’s almost as if there’s something wrong with someone who actually looks 77 when that’s how old they are. It’s as though we’re living longer but wanting the needle to stay stuck on middle age, at most. Somehow, we’re not supposed to get old. Until we turn 100, then we’re worthy of a picture in the paper.
I always have a reaction when someone says “Oh you look so much younger.” Part of me is relieved and pleased. But then I think to myself: wait a minute, I AM older, and that means something, something really important. I know we all say “you look younger” as a compliment, but I wonder: is it really a compliment?
What’s wrong with being old? Why do we avoid it like the plague? It means we’re closer to death, and death is still the taboo subject. Almost everyone still uses the term “passed away” rather than “died,” and often with a pause before the words, as though the word “died” came to mind but they didn’t want to say it. If we avoid facing the reality of death, how close we are to it when we’re old, then we deny ourselves the chance to truly enter a distinct stage of life, one in which we know that we could die at any time. Living with that knowledge makes life different, it just does. And that difference is what’s so very interesting.
Now don’t get me wrong. I work hard to stay as strong and healthy as I can. It takes so much time and effort, more and more each year. And if I miss a day or two and don’t walk AND do the elliptical machine AND the Pilates exercises AND my physical therapy exercises I don’t feel as good. Which is a fine motivator for all that work, but boy am I full of resentment at all the time it takes, and every day. And despite doing all that there’s no question that my strength grows less and my aches grow more and things are wearing out. Damn! Sitting there in the eye doctor’s office, thinking all that, I could feel myself slumping over a bit, beginning to feel really helpless. Having my eyes turn weird with dilation didn’t help either.
But then I remembered that I have a new Scamp, and that it was because I finally acknowledged my increasing need for comfort and ease that I allowed myself to even think of giving up my beloved tent. And I got to thinking about where did I really want to go this summer, and an idea came to me that had me almost leaping out of my chair with excitement. I can make it a really big splash of a trip. Who knows? It may be my last (I’ve said that to myself every year, I can rationalize almost anything with that thought). So I’m thinking about Alaska, and taking that ferry that goes from Bellingham, WA, and getting up into Juneau, maybe even way up to Denali National Park.
By the time I was called in for my audience with The Doctor (Step Three) I was in fine fettle, even though I could barely see, and even though glaucoma and cataracts are words I’m getting much too familiar with. My eyes don’t lie. I may look younger than I am, but obviously my body is wearing out in the normal way, I’m not exempt. This stage of life is therefore different from all the others I’ve gone through, and I’m curious about that difference. I want to pay close attention.