It sounds awful, even to me. When I read about an “84 year-old woman” in a newspaper, I picture a frail person with white hair, bent over with osteoporosis, who may even need a walker to get around the house and has definitely given up on hair color, makeup and jeans.
I have not given up on those things. Judging by the roots, my hair is very likely now salt and pepper. But nobody gets to see the roots, except me and Aziz, my genius hairdresser. Although for most of my adult life, I was a couch potato, beginning in February 1999, when I was 67 and way overweight, I began going to the gym every morning before work (yes, it was hard) and eventually became not overweight at all. I’m not quite so faithful to the gym any more, but I did recently begin doing Pilates twice a week. (Not very well, I admit. But you have to start somewhere.)
It’s true that in the last twenty years I’ve slowly shrunk two inches from the 5’7″ I once was; however, the shrinkage seems to have been proportional. When I’m wearing sunglasses, occasionally somebody on the street still addresses me as “Miss.” (Do I love it when that happens? What do you think?)
On the other hand, I am not a shallow person. I know looks aren’t everything. In many ways, although not all, they lie. There is no question that chronologically I am in the ninth decade of my life and that parts of me are not as they were.
Both of my eyes contain artificial lenses, because nine years ago cataracts would have prevented the renewal of my driver’s license if I hadn’t had surgical replacements. I also have a bionic right hip.
I’ve been hypertensive, and taking medication for it, since my early forties. And I’ve been living with hepatitis C since 1969, when I received a transfusion of two units of blood at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital (in New York) which were contaminated with the virus, at that time not yet identified and therefore undetected. Hep C invites a higher risk of liver cancer than might otherwise be the case — not to mention cirrhosis of the liver, but we won’t go there.
Cardiologists tend to be reassuring about my left bundle branch block and other cardiac deficits I won’t go into, but the fact that at least one of them has murmured soothingly about a worst-case scenario valve replacement is not exactly calming. Heart problems were the cause of my father’s death. He was just 84. (My mother died of colon cancer at 89; I take after him but nevertheless must undergo the joys of regular colonoscopies.)
So when I am not being ostrich-like, I feel as though I’m living in a bubble that may burst at any moment, for any one of a number of as yet unforeseen reasons. And if I consider the long life I’ve lived so far (which some acquaintances are kind enough to view as colorful), I know I’ve wasted huge amounts of it.
I have been a daydreamer and an escapist — almost always dissatisfied and wishing for something better than I had. A perfectionist afraid to get started lest I be less than perfect. Someone who managed to make her way through life only by snatching herself, and then herself and her children, back from the edge of black holes at which she had arrived through lethargy.
In fact, looking back at my so-called accomplishments, I can’t find much residual pride or pleasure to savor — other than the time I spent at home with my children when they were small. That was wonderful. Except I was always worrying about money then.
[Of course, there were also the excitements connected with meeting a new man who might turn out to be the eternally elusive Him; unlike the children, however, the new man almost always eventually disappointed and left few happy memories behind.]
The man who became my first husband — in the end evidently not the elusive Him either, but dead now, so I can write about him — had an ashtray in his studio apartment that impressed me because it set forth its wisdom in another language. It read, “Si la jeunesse savait, si l’age pouvait.” Meaning, “If youth knew, if age could.” (It sounds better in French because it rhymes.) I was twenty-one, and in spite of liking the ashtray very much for its world-weary European aspect had no idea at all what youth should have known because I thought I knew everything.
At eighty-four, though, and lacking much of what I didn’t know I had at twenty-one, I do know what the ashtray meant. It’s to seize life and love it now, all the life within reach, as it is, as well as one can, for as long as one can. Because sooner or later it’s going to end. And you don’t get a second go at it.
So I am going to try to do just that before the bubble bursts and I have to confront the unknown bad things ahead — blogging about it as I go. With all my counter-productive habits (yes, I still daydream, and often feel, despite what I know, that I have all the time in the world), I am going to have to work at it.
But that’s a good thing. I’m old enough to remember when the Freudian mantra, love and work, was the solution to every problem. Including getting old.
Maybe it still is. We’ll see.