Terry DuLong, who blogs at Writing Away on Cedar Key, had this to say in response to last Friday’s post about my difficulty with getting old amid all the cultural imperatives to do everything possible to look young:
“…what bothers me the most about aging is that I have less time ahead of me than behind me. I mean it truly, really, bothered me for a few weeks after turning 60. I finally had to let go of it and focus on the here and now because I know how important the present is.
“But I'm enjoying this stage of my life so much, I don't want to let it go. Time is passing way too quickly for me. I moved to Florida 20 years ago and it feels like yesterday. So, 20 years from now, I'll be turning 80!
“I guess what I'm trying to say is the physical doesn't affect me as much as the thought that I just might not be able to do and accomplish ALL that I want to in this lifetime. Does anyone else feel this way or am I totally alone thinking these thoughts?”
One of the most interesting aspects of getting old is that unlike infants and children whose growth can be predicted to the month and even week, we age at dramatically different rates. There are 80-somethings who run marathons and corporations. And there are 50-somethings who, due to health, genes or simple bad luck are decrepit.
There is no reason to believe this applies only to our bodies. We come to our changing attitudes about age and eventual death at different times too, sometimes years apart from one another.
Like Terri, and not so long ago, I was concerned that the speed of passing time would leave so much unfinished, unknown and undone when the grim reaper shows up for me.
When I was in my late teens and the sister of my godfather committed suicide, I couldn’t imagine – particularly since she had died by choice – how she could have left unfinished on the bedside table, Lawrence Durrell’s Clea. There is no way, I thought, having slogged through the first three books of The Alexandria Quartet (and it IS a slog), I wouldn’t have finished the last third of the final book before making my exit.
And I have often thought that when my time to go arrives, I will face it pleading for a few extra minutes to finish the book or meal or blog post. But not so much anymore.
Throughout the 50 years of my working life, I looked forward – in the far, far future – to doing the big, “important” things I postponed for lack of time through those decades. Then I would re-read all of Shakespeare one after the other with, I hoped, more understanding than in my youth. Then I would, at my leisure, listen with more concentration to Wagner and try to reconcile the music I like with the composer’s anti-Semitism and Hitler’s love of his music.
Then I would learn pastry cooking which is more science than art. And then I would go to law school not to become an attorney, but for the deep education in logic. And it went without saying that then I would re-read Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books – all 46 of them. And spend a year in China.
Now I know I will never get to these beyond dabbling a bit. There is too much there for an entire life and I’ve lost the impulse for them while gaining it for others.
I don’t regret now (most of the time) what I won’t have time for and I think I know now, too, how my godfather’s sister could leave off finishing Clea; sometimes the effort is too much for the small return.
After my great Aunt Edith retired sometime in her seventies, we had a richly satisfying, long-distance relationship for many years. She had a lively mind, a fine sense of humor and she read widely, clipping news stories and New Yorker cartoons she sent to me. We spoke at least weekly on the telephone for an hour or more about the world, politics, life, family reminiscences, recipes and more.
Then, when Aunt Edith was in her late eighties, a couple of years before she died, she began to let go of the world around her. There were fewer mailings, less conversation about politics and the world. She began complaining that she’d seen all the movies on television too many times and she made a sharp turn inward.
She repeated stories from her childhood every time we spoke. Fortunately, this was on the telephone and I could make faces to get me through the hundredth telling of the first automobile in her neighborhood – the “red devil” – without expressing my impatience. I never stopped her because the stories were obviously important in some way I did not know.
This disengagement from life and the world at large was also apparent in several friends who died young. The lifelong political fire in Patrick’s activist belly receded as the HIV made him sicker. Joe became quieter and turned inward as he became weaker – also from HIV. Those two men were in their forties, but even Archie, in his late twenties (again, it was HIV) lost interest, as the disease progressed, in everything but his partner and friends.
I am counting on that disengagement when my time to go comes near. I have often said that I am pissed off big time that I will not live long enough to see how the mess in the Middle East plays out over the coming decades; or how history will judge President Bush; or in what manner we have not imagined yet that computers will advance and change daily life; or if ageism will be defeated and elders will gain their rightful place in the culture.
But halfway through my seventh decade, I can already detect a less urgent desire to know these things. Not much yet, but noticeable particularly as that impossible to-do list for my elder years recedes in importance.
Like Terri DuLong, I am enjoying later life with more gusto that previous periods and I am not ready to leave. I’d like to be here as long as Aunt Edith who died about three months short of her 90th birthday. There is relief, however, as my time grows shorter, in the gradual letting go of the need to be doing, doing, doing or to tick off items as they are accomplished.
Not always, but more frequently nowadays, being is what gives me pleasure while I hope I am correct that the disengagement at the end of life I’ve seen in others is the natural order of things. I want to spend my final weeks or months engaged in what I believe is our last, great personal adventure and I hope I will have the strength of mind and soul for it rather than sorrow for what I have not accomplished.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Paul Henry has contributed a World War II story about trains, chance meetings and A Lesson Learned When I Was Young.]