Is growing old really just in the mind? Or at least, mostly so?
One morning over thirty years ago, I got out of bed and stood up. My feet hurt. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t simply sprint into the day. I shuffled through the kitchen and down the hall. Fortunately, with each step the achiness eased a bit. By the time I hovered in the bathroom doorway, my feet had calmed down considerably. But I was still horrified. I had visions of spending the rest of my life saying things like, “I’m okay, dearie. Just give me five minutes to get up from this sofa.” I remembered, too, how I’d always raced up subway steps, baffled by the elderly folks who chose to slowly, carefully, lift one leg up, and then rest. Lift the other leg up, and then rest. Why did they take so long? Didn’t they realize it was easier to move quickly than glacially? But now I knew why they crawled instead of leaping. They were in pain.
Oh my gosh, I thought. I’m an old person.
I was twenty-two years old, and in perfect health, I might add.
It seems to me I’ve spent a fair amount of time both dreading old age and suspecting that I’ve already reached it. Nancy Reagan died recently, and she was someone whom I’d always comfortably regarded as old. I was eighteen during the 1980 presidential election, and just seeing her back then on the television—with her helmet hair, and her gash of a smile—made me feel, in contrast, eternally youthful. But when her obituary appeared in the newspaper, I did some quick calculating. When her husband was elected, she was fifty-nine.
I’m now fifty-three.
I could be the winsome little sister of the 1980 version of Nancy Reagan.
This is the sort of revelation that freezes the soul.
Of course, now that I’ve reached my fifties, it’s more than my feet that sometimes hurt. The Internet assures me, though, that odd aches and pains are common, so I try not to indulge in fantasies about dying within a week or two. When I do have daydreams along those lines, they inevitably involve the realization that the mourners at my funeral will be in a hurry to get home and check out the latest Photoshops of Little Marco sitting on Donald Trump’s lap.
Meanwhile, my husband, who is fifty-six, is busy raising his occasional forgetfulness into high art. One recent evening he wanted to write a note to himself to remember to bring an extra $15 with him to work the next morning. But because he couldn’t find a pen, he took a piece of paper and painstakingly folded it into a fifteen-sided polygon. Then he put his creation on his placemat.
The next morning he headed into the kitchen for breakfast. He spotted something squatting on the table, and he approached it for a better look.
He thought, “What the heck is that?”
Much, much later in the day, he said, “Oooooh!”
Even when I bravely decide to regard myself as someone whose best years lie ahead, my kids make it clear they consider me a mere relic. Last Friday my husband and I were driving them to their tennis lesson, and the subject of women in sports came up.
“When I was young,” I said, “my dad used to take my brothers to the park to play baseball, but I wasn’t allowed to go with them.”
“Why not?” asked Henry.
“Because I was a girl.”
“Did they say that?” asked Philip incredulously.
“Of course! I asked to go with them, and they said I couldn’t because I was a girl.”
A miasma of disgust emanated from the backseat, followed by Henry saying dismissively, “Twentieth century.”
We got to the tennis facility and picked up some rackets from the front desk. The boys swung them lightly through the air.
“What are those made of?” I asked, reaching out to inspect the thin rackets. “You guys are so lucky. During the one semester I took tennis in college, I had to use this really heavy wooden racket. It hurt my wrist.”
The boys stared at me. Then Henry said, in a tone that announced once again the explanation of everything I ever was and ever will be, “Twentieth century.”
The boys’ lack of faith in my ability to keep up with the times is occasionally unfathomable. The other day, as I sat typing at the computer, Henry came over and asked, “Mom, do you know about YouTube?”
I sputtered, “Of course I know about YouTube! I introduced you to YouTube! I’ve shown you funny cat videos and excerpts from musicals.”
The boys glanced at each other. Philip murmured to Henry, “She doesn’t know about YouTube.”
“I watch it once or twice a week!” I protested. “How can I not know about it? Wait a minute,” I said, suddenly suspicious. “What are you guys watching?”
“Video game walkthroughs,” answered Philip, just as Henry said, “Shh!”
“Well, just because I’m not watching those,” I began, “doesn’t mean—”
“Don’t come in here when we’re watching them,” said Philip.
“Why not? Should I be putting parental controls on this thing?”
“No,” said Henry. “It’s just you’re not cool enough to watch our video games. You’re not even cool enough to hear the music. You’re not cool enough to hear the game titles.”
I guess no matter how old I get, I always will have been born during the Kennedy administration. The exciting new technology when I was my sons’ age was air conditioning in cars. Air conditioning in cars was considered worthy of discussion. “Oh my gosh.” “Can you feel that?” “Yeah.” “Wow.” “This is amazing.” Air conditioning—it doesn’t flash any lights. It doesn’t play music. You can’t use it to score points in some game. It doesn’t film you. You can’t record it. But it felt as though it changed everything. After air conditioning, if some kid in the backseat of a station wagon vomited during the treacherously long trip through Great Adventure’s safari area, it would be okay, because the air conditioning would keep the vomit from baking. YouTube, I might note, has absolutely no effect upon vomit. Although, admittedly, it has quite a few videos that feature it.
So I’m old in the sense that I can remember the technological Dark Ages. But I’m not so old in the sense that I argue on a daily basis with eleven-year-olds. I experience the odd twinge. That makes me old. But I still get out. So I’m young.
Maybe as long as I keep worrying about getting old, that will mean I’m actually young. Or maybe I’ll only be old the day I leave a twenty-seven-sided polygon made out of loose leaf on my placemat and then can’t remember why.
Or maybe growing old is just one of the many experiences in life with no clear beginning.
Wait a minute! I can perceive ambiguity.
That must mean I’m young. Or old. Or—at the very least—alive.
Illustration by Mario Klingemann