It’s quite easy to forget about it. The age thing, I mean.
Having a medical checkup is one of the times it’s not. Like most of my contemporaries I seem to have acquired various specialists over the years, each of whom has staked out a little fiefdom in some part of me that he — curiously, there is no she — wants to test at regular intervals.
Yes, I know it’s to be sure there’s nothing bad coming down the pike. On the other hand, letting all these specialists have their way with me involves euphemistically styled “procedures” — like CAT scans — that would expose me to more radioactivity than I care to think about. Also I don’t like to spend what life may be left reassuring all those white coats that there is some life left. It chews up a lot of time.
So I don’t see them as often as they might like. I stall, delay, reschedule.
Another reason I don’t like going is that when I finally do show up, some impossibly young medical assistant ushers me into that little windowless room with the examining table and a scale, weighs and measures me (to see if I’ve shrunk since last time), then looks at the chart and exclaims, “82? You’re really 82? I’d never have guessed!”
She means it as a compliment. I can’t even deny that part of me — the frivolous foolish part — is pleased. But what she really means, even though she doesn’t say it, is that “82” is bad, younger than “82” is better. And much younger is much better.
How could she help thinking that in the age of Miley Cyrus? (All right, you can go as far as Gwyneth Paltrow. But stop right there.) Is there an impossibly young medical assistant anywhere who exclaims to a thirty-something, “35? You’re really 35? I’d never have guessed!”
The very young are less judgmental. They’re just dismissive. In 1978, I took both children west to visit my parents, then living in L.A.. My father was 76. My younger son whispered to me, “Did Grandpa know George Washington?” For him, anyone noticeably older was history.
The thing is, people like me (or my 76-year-old father, a youngster, relatively speaking) who’ve been around longer than the medical assistant so surprised to see me erect, functioning, and highlighted by my hairdresser — or than my little son when he began to learn American history in fourth grade — people like me are not yet history, long-ago birthdates notwithstanding.
We may gradually become slightly or somewhat or significantly incapacitated by what is happening to our bodies. But we are still living our lives and making plans and enjoying ice cream (when we let ourselves have some), and trying to be happy as best we can. Just like you. Especially if we lower our eyes towards the sink every morning while brushing teeth, so as not to notice that increasingly wrinkly person who always appears in the bathroom mirror when we stand in front of it. (What did you think? That I wouldn’t like to look like Gwyneth Paltrow, too?)
Fact: if you who are reading this are lucky enough to be able to hang in there, one day that “we” in the preceding paragraph is going to include you. And most of the time you’re not going to feel a whole lot different than you do now. What differences there are will have come on so imperceptibly, and your adjustment to them will have been so gradual, that you will seem to yourself to be the same “you” you’ve known all along.
Which is why it’s so hard for me to remember I’m “really” 82 unless I see it in writing, or someone — like the wrinkled person in the mirror or the medical assistant with the charts — reminds me.
Perhaps our culture is so uneasy around people who are past their pull date in the workplace, and are now in the eighth, ninth and tenth decades of their lives, because most of us don’t live near our grandparents or great-grandparents any more and therefore lack familiarity with people who have acquired a lot of life experience and look it.
Alternatively, maybe it’s that there’s so little out there from which we can learn about, um, what it’s like to be old.
You can certainly find plenty to read, online and elsewhere, about how to deal with aging parents. Or, if you yourself are the aging parent, about how to provide for yourself so you’re not a nuisance to anyone else. Much unwanted literature arrives in my postal mailbox almost every day, urging me to join the happy old who no longer have to worry about keeping the lawn neat and the boiler working because they’re now living in an establishment with an arboreal or very English name and lots of staff — the purpose of which is to cater to the increasingly decrepit and inept: “The last move you’ll ever have to make!”
Then there are the writers who hold your feet to the fire, such as Susan Jacoby. Her very fine and bracing book, “Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of The New Old Age,” will tell you that one out of every two people who make it to eighty-five will develop Alzheimers. I believe her. However, focusing on this not-very-good statistical risk doesn’t help me enjoy the life I still have to live.
That’s why I try, most of the time, to sidestep thoughts of age, illness and death, even though I know I am being involuntarily transported in that direction.
But testamentary documents executed, and modest savings placed under the conservative management of a kindly financial guru in Boston — how else am I going to really live until I die?