My birthday is today. Fourth of July. I am now seventy years old. Should that previous sentence end with an exclamation mark? It should probably, at the very least, express some surprise… surprise that I made it this long. I guess I should be happy about that. But I know living is just what we do on our way to death. Some die young, some die in middle age, and some die very old. It is an inevitable journey we all take and whose duration is unknown. I am all too aware I am nearing the end of my excursion, though it is feels more like a jaunt.
I am told it is another milestone. To me it is a reminder of the last one… when I turned sixty. My partner threw a big party for me. Most all who were invited, and there were many, showed up. It was grand. I never felt better in my life. The week before, I had kayaked aroung Blake Island. No small feet considering the shipping lanes, ferries, and container ships. I was still working out at the gym three times a week and often bicyling to and from the gym. I never felt in better shape. And when you feel healthy, your world view is so positive.
You feel can go on forever. You feel people are still physically attracted to you, though that may be all in your mind. It doesn’t matter. If it’s all in your mind, it’s true. You feel you can easily take that 15-hour flight to Thailand or visit Rosie in Australia. Going for a trek in the Cascades? A walk in the park.
Fast forward one decade. I walk with a cane. I have but one kidney and it is on its last legs. My legs turn into rubber after walking half a block. I have vertigo and getting on a bike is out of the question. Besides, my hips can barely hold the weight of my torso. My knees are shot. My intestines will not cooperate despite what I think is an excellent diet. I have bouts of diverticulitis. My scoliosis and spinal stenosis are pains I can’t ignore any more. I have a degenerating spine whose vertebrae are fusing on their own.
In one decade? Is the journey of living then a progression in which time accelerates geometrically? Is this what my father meant as he lay dying at the age of 95 and fornornly said, “Why is this happening to me so fast?” As I tried to console him I thought, “What does he expect at his age? He’s outlived all his relatives and friends. He was healthy until the very end. He was riding his bicyle around the complex, for chrissakes! Why doesn’t he just go gently into that good night and as soon as possible!
But now I understand. Now I know with certainty that no one ever goes to sleep at night not expecting to wake up the next morning. Now I understand that it is silly to think I might be physically attractive to anyone, and quite frankly, don’t mind anymore. But that could also be because I have absolutely no libido and therefore no groinal twitches upon admiring a young, hot, body, but merely an aesthetic appreciation. For better or worse, I have made the transition from the epicure to the aesthete. I am not disappointed or ungrateful. I know there are so many others who live with diseases and infirmities much greater than mine, and many from an early age. I can only say I empathize completely with their aches, pains, and limitations. I understand the mental gymnastics one tries to practice to keep their outlook positive and their future bright, though they may know deep inside they are practicing their routines in order to better face the final frontier.
So these are the “golden years,” eh? I can think of no glimmering lining to the clouds of aging, no advantages to getting old, except perhaps on the off chance that when people say “older, but wiser” to me, there may be some truth to it. The problem is I know many young people who are very wise, and many old people who are very stupid. So that alone negates the saying.
I do think that being old may mean you have accumulated more life experiences from which you can make more fact-based decisions, but we all know that is an endemic problem among the entire populace… the inablitiy or refusal to make decisions based on fact.
I do think that being old may make you more empathetic to the plight of others, but we can see by watching the news, corporations and the oligarchs have little empathy for the the poor, the displaced, the homeless, the unemployed, the middle class and the immigrant.
I do think, for me personally, I have become more patient. And patience can provide room for thoughtfulness and being a thoughtful person may allow for empathy and critical thinking and perhaps combined with life experiences, may be the primary components of wisdom. Wisdom may also be achieved simply because old people know their journey is nearing its end, so why sweat the small stuff, so little time is left. I forget the exact wording, but Noam Chomsky once said, once you’ve reached the age of 70, everything after that is icing on the cake. So perhaps in the face of their own mortality, the elderly take joy in simply waking up the next day. For them the finest words they can hear are, “Good Morning!”
The Unapologetic Hippie