ON TURNING 81

“Getting old is the pits, it’s all downhill.”  Whenever I hear someone say something like that I get so mad. I’m mad at whoever is saying it for being so stupid, and I’m mad at all the zillions of people over the years who’ve made us think that way.  I want to yell back, “Just shut up and pay attention to what’s really going on.”  I’m no Pollyanna, but the truth is this: Getting old is up-hill.  Yes, I said up. And in so many ways. And when you start getting near the top, if you’re paying attention at all, it’s nothing short of amazing.

Yeah yeah, we’re not as strong, we’re slower, we look different from young people, we think about death a lot, things are happening to our bodies. But so what? Those things are all workable, they’re just changes, differences. We’ve got to do some changing too. And what’s so bad about that anyway? We get to be middle-aged long enough.

Old age is getting such a bad rap. You’d think that once we see our first gray hair we’re looking right down into the depths of Hell. We’ll just shrivel up in misery and ugliness, there’s nothing left. How did that happen?  Old used to mean wise – where did that go? We used to get lots of respect, and our wrinkly faces used to be beautiful. But damn, that’s all gone down the drain.

It sends me into conniption fits when I see a woman looking sad and she’s saying something like, “Oh god, look at my neck! Oh the wrinkles! What’ll I do?” Well here’s a suggestion: stop looking in the mirror and go do something useful or interesting or fun. For godsakes, get on with your life.

Don’t get me wrong: I know just how she feels. I used to be afraid too. I was hit by all that ballyhoo about getting old, just as much as everyone else. And there wasn’t much to counteract it. My mother was useless: she’d never say boo about anything personal, not ever. Her body got all gnarled up with arthritis but she pretended nothing was happening. She wouldn’t even own up to one single little twinge of pain. Now some people might find that admirable, but me, I wanted to know what was up ahead. I wanted some straight-shooting talk about what old age is really like. What else is it that happens, besides our bodies changing? That’s what I wanted to know. I couldn’t believe it would be just misery and nothing else.

So why do we buy all those lies that are dished out to us? It’s not only because almost all you see in movies, magazines, TV, is young people. No, it’s something more. People start feeling ashamed when they start getting old, it’s like they’ve broken the code, they couldn’t keep up. Some of them lose their jobs, their spouses, nobody listens when they talk, nurses pat their heads and baby-talk to them. And they give up, they just sit in their living rooms all day watching TV and feeling achy and sad. The power of advertising – they don’t even stick their necks out to see if maybe they were sold a bill of goods.

And don’t get me started on the “Active Senior Communities.” They’re for the people who have the money to keep themselves looking middle aged (if you squint at them from a distance). In the pictures they’re always laughing away and carrying a tennis racket, and they’re thin and you can tell they’re moving really fast to get to that tennis court, laughing and laughing, like they’ve beat the system, they’ll never get old. God almighty.

Me? I figure the day I turned 70 was when I first stuck one foot into old age, just testing the waters. I’d been middle-aged so long it was quite a surprise to me. I felt a little tremor and knew an earthquake was close behind. The tremors came faster and faster, and I had to do some serious shifting and changing. Mostly my attitude. By my 80th birthday I was able to pull my other leg in and bingo! I was now officially in Old Age. And I was ready. I felt celebratory. I knew I was in a brand-new kind of age zone. I knew things were going to be different from now on. No, it’s more than that. It’s me that’s different, how I feel about things, how I see things. I’m finally really myself. Like everything that came before, my whole life, it was all leading up to this, the real me. And it took 80 years to get here.

Actually, I’ve been here a number of times before, each time feeling that I’ve finally arrived, I’m finally fully grown. Ha! I’ve been wrong every time. One of the things about Old Age is that inner and outer begin to separate from each other, go their own ways. Physically, I’m afraid there’s no other word for it but deterioration. My body is wearing out, no matter how hard I work to keep as much as possible, as long as possible. But everything else – my mind, my spirit, they fly so fast and light now that all the unimportant details that have weighted them down drop away, and I see that so many things that mattered for so many years just plain don’t anymore. What freedom.

I want to scream when I hear someone moaning and groaning about how they couldn’t remember why they went into the other room for something, or how it takes a while to remember a simple word. Their whole day is ruined cause they’re sure dementia is coming at them, and they just stop in their tracks. Yes, of course dementia looms before us like the worst monster from the underworld. But we don’t all get it. What we do get is change in our brains, along with all the other changes. The spaces between the neurons up there get wider, so it takes longer for a signal to make that jump from one to another. I don’t know that that’s accurate, but I do know it helps me not spend my day fretting about what might be up ahead.

And what is up ahead? Behind me lies the vast expanse of 81 years. Now and then I turn back to look, to remember. When I turn to look forward, my nose now almost touches a fog so thick I can’t see through it to whatever’s beyond. I stand rooted on this tiny spot, right here, right now, knowing that at any moment a sudden gust of wind will blow me off, straight into that thick fog. It does take courage, but when I’m able to not give in to that fear of the unknown, when I’m able to look around me and take in exactly where I am, it’s bracing. It makes me snap to and get on with my life.

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