Not too long ago I turned a corner and found myself entering the sixth decade of my life. The words themselves stand in stark contrast to how I felt at the time, or how I feel even now. When my brother-in-law, Mark, asked how it felt to have crossed that threshold, I said I felt like I always had. Fine. Younger than I was. No different from yesterday or from the day before that. Nothing had changed as far as I could tell.
Mark and I share the same birthday, but his response to that same question was colored by a torn rotator cuff that wasn’t healing properly – he’d chosen not to have surgery and was paying the price. Missing was the youthful attitude, funny banter, the hilarious stories, and his laughter. Not a function of chronology or mind-set but a result of on-going pain that, over time, can alter the map of one’s relatively unmarked face. With the passage of time and the ability of the body to heal (even if it takes a bit longer as we age), the Mark we all know and love returned, along with the attitude and demeanor of his customary younger self.
His big brother Bill is a mix of old and young. On one hand, he’s determined to talk himself into old age and has been doing so for as long as I’ve known him. Yet he doesn’t act old. He has a determined gait with long, purposeful strides. Standing with his shoulders back and spine erect, he does not engage in slumping or looking at the ground so as not to stumble, and while his words exit his mouth at a snail’s pace, he thinks and reacts in rapid-fire fashion when required. Neither he nor Mark are seriously marked by some of the telltale signs of aging: wrinkles, sagging skin, heavy jowls, age spots. They’ve been blessed with good genes. This is what DNA can do for you if you’re lucky. None of the four siblings looks their age, which proves one thing – if you’re calculating “old age” by chronology, the age-o-meter is not an entirely reliable measure.
Sometimes, of course, considering age is unavoidable – filling out forms for Medicare, for example. But chronology is only one factor. Problems arise when we put the numbers first – numbers and words weighted with negative connotations. They can make people age quicker than time itself. You hear people say “I’m getting old” all the time, an attitude suggesting they probably are. Those words become a self-fulfilling prophecy and too often dictate how we think, then how we feel. We all have days when we feel like this, but attitude is key. It doesn’t take care of everything, but it goes a long way to holding the hands of time steady on the clock. Look how long Jack Benny was 39.
Then, of course, there’s how we look, or think we look, which may have the greatest impact of all on our emotional and psychological well-being. When I look in the mirror, I see the changes that have taken place over time – a little puffiness under the eyes, a few lines around the mouth, yet I don’t feel any differently from the way I felt yesterday, last week, or five years ago. I still go ballroom dancing, occasionally put on my ice skates and whirl around the rink to the latest tunes, and belt out a few songs with Laura, though I think she’s reluctant to let me karaoke with her anymore, or maybe I’m the reluctant one. And my students at the university have always kept me sharp. If you don’t stay one step ahead of them, they’ll render you irrelevant in the classroom. My granddaughters, too, (Kearsti and Megan) keep me from dating myself with archaic vocabulary and indicate, often with a look or a groan, whether what I wear will draw sneers or high-fives.
And I’m no slacker. I do my best to “keep myself up.”
Still, it comes as a shock to find the occasional wrinkle here or an age spot there – if only we’d known what damage the sun does when we were younger. The disparity between the things you see and those you feel can be jarring. My hip hurts when the weather turns cold, the result of a car accident in the late ’90s, and I limp sometimes when I rise from the chair or the floor where I often sit Indian-style. I tell myself this can’t be me. Isn’t me. Won’t ever BE me. But who else is it? No, I’m not immune to the affects of aging even if I’m not entirely at their mercy. Not yet, anyway. There is, however, the subliminal fear that I will be subjected to the ravages of time in their supreme wrath one day when I least expect it.
I don’t mind being ravaged – but not that way.
My father’s dark skin (Native American ancestry) was weathered by a two- to three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. He smoked unfiltered Camels all his life, his addiction obvious in the deep, leathery grooves in his cheeks, and the severe lines carved across his forehead and around his eyes and mouth, and those sliced into his well-tanned cheeks. Some of the worst skin I’ve seen belongs to smokers and sun worshipers. If you’re worried about how you look when you stand in front of the mirror, you can take steps to change those inevitable kinds of outcomes. And you’ll live longer, too. There is help for you out there. Look for it. Ask.
But it isn’t just about how we look. Sometimes it’s what we come to believe because we say it over and over. Will saying it often enough make it true?
It can. Sometimes.
There are changes I’ve had to make to accommodate the things I have refused to openly acknowledge. In my mid-fifties I was still riding roller coasters at Cedar Point, stopping only because the jerking and bumping brought on severe migraines. I miss the rush, but then I get a bad headache and remember why I gave up the coasters. At 62, I was still doing cartwheels across the lawn – to make sure I still could. Good ones, straight ones – until I tore my hamstring. My fault for failing to stretch beforehand. A few months later I sprained my ankle on an icy step, and it took seven months to fully heal. Why? Because I’m not an athlete. Because I’m not twenty, or even thirty, any longer – a fact my doctor tactfully reminded me of as I hobbled off to physical therapy. Yes, I recovered, but not with the swift indifference of yesteryear. So now I console myself by getting to the gym at 5 AM, just like always, and working out on the machines two or three times a week and alternating a treadmill with a non-stop mile in the pool usually twice a week. I can’t walk around the lake every day when it’s too cold or too hot, the way I have for most of my life adult life, thanks to a heart issue, so I altered that which I used to do, filling that time with whatever I still can.
Bill doesn’t do the workout thing. Nor Mark. A few years before he tore his rotator cuff, Mark went
snow-skiing somewhere in the Poconos, I think. It was his first time skiing, ever, and he fell, seriously breaking his leg. He’d never been one to let chronology stand in his way, at least not before this. Now he says his skiing days are over. Bill swore off skiing long before Mark, having had a near-miss with a snow fence at the end of long, steep slope on his first practice run some twenty-odd years back. Bill’s mantra – why take chances?
I want to age gracefully, but I will not simply acquiesce. Wishing the mirror on my wall were magic, I ask that question one more time. I know I’m not “the fairest in the land” but am I doing okay? Am I managing change gracefully?
I have not let myself go, but there are some things I still need to let go of.