For most of my life, I’ve had the goal of aging gracefully. Even at my still reasonably youthful age of 31, it hasn’t been easy. To start, my hair started receding when I was in high school. There’s nothing that feels particularly graceful about someone guessing you’re 30 when you’re 18. Especially since people usually guess low.
“It’s just the way you carry yourself. You seem older.”
Sure it is.
There’s also nothing particularly graceful about your future in-laws telling your future wife to check your ID to make sure you’re not some geezer going after a younger woman. Okay, in fairness, I was singing Geoff Stephen’s Winchester Cathedral with my wife’s grandfather at the time, and I did know all the words. And they didn’t actually use the word “geezer.”
In university, I liked to chase caesars with margaritas. Now I just chase them with antacids.
Then a male friend told me the other day — swearing me to secrecy — that he feels like he’s getting wimpier with age. I told him I felt the same. Little things that wouldn’t have caused me to flinch before are now excruciating.
A milestone was reached the other day when I went to the dentist to pick up my new night guard. Not that it has anything to do with age because I’ve evidently had a very slight misalignment of my jaws as long as I’ve had adult teeth, but as I’m sitting there lisping to the hygienist through the apparatus, I couldn’t help feeling a little self-conscious. I kept reminding myself that Christian Bale wore a night guard in American Psycho, and he was the very picture of youth. Or, at least, I hope he wore a night guard. Don’t tell me if he didn’t; I don’t want to know.
When you find yourself trying to extract comfort from drawing comparisons between yourself and a fictional psychopath, you know you have problems.
Mark Twain’s witty remark to Edward Dimmit that “the first half of life consists of the capacity to enjoy without the chance; the last half consists of the chance without the capacity” now haunts me like a warning instead of joke.
I know that aging gracefully is supposed to be about taking care of ourselves, accepting — even embracing — the changes that come with life, and not resigning ourselves to stagnancy. I’m trying to follow my own tenet but, heck, maybe I won’t have to resign myself to stagnancy: maybe stagnancy doesn’t give a damn whether I resign myself. Resistance Is Futile.
One time I got stuck on the dementia floor of a long-term care facility. I had gotten into the elevator, but the elevator was called to a different floor, and I got out without realizing. When I turned around to call the elevator again, the buttons were locked behind a Plexiglas cover. Stairwells were locked behind doors which would trip an alarm if opened. I started to wander through the halls filled with people with somewhat vacant expressions, searching for a staff person to let me out, my mild amusement at my mistake of getting off on the wrong floor rising rapidly to panic. My brain goes ludicrous places when I panic. I started thinking: what if they think I’m a resident here? How am I going to prove I’m not? What if they never let me leave?
When I eventually found a staff person and told her that I couldn’t get off this floor, she joked without missing a beat, “me neither: I’ve been here since 1994.” If you spend your days face-to-face with dementia, I suppose it’s healthy to develop a sense of humour about these things.
Then today, while waiting in line at the bank, an elderly woman said to her granddaughter — with genuine fear evident in her voice and in the expression on her face — “I’m just so worried about falling on the ice out there.” Ice can be treacherous, but it never occurred to me to be terrified of going out when ice is on the ground. But it makes sense. A fall that, to me, would result maybe in a pulled muscle or minor strain can mean broken bones that never heal to person whose bones have brittled with age.
My point is: it’s easy to preach the virtues of aging gracefully when you picture yourself aging well, doing all the things you used to be able to do. It’s easy to say “accept change” when you’re assuming the changes are going to be positive.
Taking care of ourselves is vital, but sometimes we’re a ticking time bomb no matter what we do. My uncle has taken extremely good care of himself his whole life. Or, leastways, my aunt has taken extremely good care of him. An active lifestyle, regular exercise, healthy eating — all the good stuff. Several years ago, he was diagnosed with diabetes. Bang. Quality of life diminished. Resistance Is Futile. Sure, he manages his health well, but let’s not pretend that everything’s “same as usual.”
On the other hand, there’s my friend Keith. 75 years old. Drinks whiskey like I drink water. Smoked since he was 14. Broken every bone in his body, some more than once. This is not a man who decided to navigate Life carefully. But he’s one of the most active people I know. This man just might outlive us all.
Or Patrick Stewart? Let’s all stop pretending that man hasn’t tapped into some Elven elixir of life. Yes, he’s aging but he looks better and better every year.
I think what I’ve learned is that we don’t know what the future holds. Maybe I’ll live to 100 and still have use of all my faculties. Maybe I’ll develop early onset dementia (some days, a case could be made that it’s already started). Maybe I’ll die tomorrow.
None of these are new observations or thoughts: existentialist musings have been crystalized in history. But for me, it emphasizes not just the old adages on seizing the day and living life to its fullest, but also the pure blessing of life.
Today, I am thankful for every molecule of breath in my lungs, for every beat in my heart. If they’re my last, so be it. If it gets harder to suck in that breath, or pump out that beat, too bad. Right now, I Live, I Sing, I Dance, I Laugh. Right now, I’m surrounded by people I love and who love me. I’m golden.