When I was a pre-adolescent, and member of a large Baptist church, my sisters and I would talk amongst ourselves about the conversations we constantly heard around us with elderly members, and how we would never allow ourselves to become the kind of old people who sat around and talked about our aches and pains and medications, and how much it can hurt to get older. And when I started this blog in 2009, I intended it to be about politics and religion-not about life in general, not about dogs and music, and not about getting older. But sometimes life gets in the way, and plans change. This year I will turn 55. That number sounds daunting to me-more than 50 did! It struck me this week that people who were born in the same decade I was are now turning 60. I just got a new knee in March. Now, I can say that my surgeon told me was not used to saying to a person "as young as you," that I needed a new knee. That helped some, but there is still the looming prospect of 55 and then 60 that take my breath away.
I talk to alot of people on the phone in my work. Sometimes I hear a woman's voice, and think she must be rather "old," and then I find out that she was born around the same time I was. At what point do our voices begin to sound "old?" But I also spoke to a woman the other day who was born the same year as my mother, and she sounded considerably older than my mother. Is that perhaps because this woman had health issues that aged her, or do I not see my mother as old as she is? Her voice is my mother's voice, no matter what? It's hard to say. Now when my girlfriends and I get together, there is always some time spent talking about our medications, our pain, the slowing of the motility of our guts and the vaporous indignities that creates.
Not many of my high school classmates have died, but a few have. But many have had some terrible health problems-diabetes, heart and lung problems, others have had joint replacements or have arthritis and need new joints. Most have silver hair, or much less hair than we remember. Someone recently posted photos from a class get-together, and one of my good friends asked us when these other people got so old. I felt differently-I still see the people as I remember them from "then." I still feel as I did "then," except better in some ways. Yes, I inherited my dad's jowls, which make my mouth look thin and frowny. I have some turkey neck. My hair too, is salt and pepper and the hairline keeps moving backward. I didn't know that was supposed to happen to girls. My lashes and brows are getting thinner. Of course, my hair has been graying since my 30s, but I covered it up for years. Yes, I have joint problems, but on the one hand, I have also reached a point where I don't much care what other people think about what I do or say. I once weighed 300 pounds, and was always a chubby teen, and as a result of having lost over 100 pounds, and the ever present pull down of gravity, I have ugly thighs and bat wing arms. But I wear shorts, and sleeveless tops, and if someone has a problem with that, it is their problem. There was a time that I would never, ever go without sleeves because I knew people would be looking at my arms. Now would be a good time for me to go and try to make it on Broadway or in Hollywood, as I always dreamed of doing when I was younger, because I have lost the self-consciousness that made me too afraid to take that plunge when I was young enough to be (maybe) successful. Thank you, Kathy Bates and Roseann for showing me that heavy women could be successful in performing arts!*** I wish your fame had come in the mid-1970's.
This is the hard part of reaching "a certain age." It is the time that we spend too much time looking back rather than ahead. We think of the love we rejected, the job we turned down, the comments we made and the fights we never apologized for, and there is regret. My first marriage broke up in 1995, and it took many years for me to stop feeling like a failure. Having been raised in the church, I'd been taught, "In order to get a divorce, you must consider divorce an option." So for 11 years, my first husband and I did not consider it an option, and we believed we had chosen rather to work through our problems. I didn't consider him leaving me for another woman an option either, but that was something I was not in charge of, and another story altogether. Back then, I used to say that the only thing I feared was dying with regrets. But now regrets are ever-present. I regret that I was too afraid of failing to go after what I believed my career would be. I regret that I didn't have children, though I adore my stepsons, and their children. But if for some reason my husband and I were no longer be married, I would be the one left alone because there is no blood between us. My husband's side of the family would be afraid that keeping a relationship with me would be uncomfortable for my husband-I get that. I regret the cost to my health of having grown so large when I was young enough to make my middle years super healthy. I regret many times that I've said something hurtful or angry. Words cannot be taken back, and sometimes in the things I've allowed to make me say ugly things, I turned out to be in the wrong. I regret that I haven't been more active in fighting either for or against the things that are important to me. I've signed lots of petitions, I've given money when I've had it. But there are so many things I could have done that I didn't-I've never got involved in politics at the precinct level, which could have led to a greater ability to make a real difference.
More than personal regrets, I look at the aged among us, and wonder if our wonderful, amazing advances in medicine are doing people any great favors by keeping people alive so much longer. Yes, some of the people being kept alive have the will and resources to make their "golden" years truly golden; they are the exception, not the rule. But there are aspects of aging that are beyond our ability to control. My father will turn 73 this year, and is in intractable, unfixable pain. The drugs they give him to control the pain have terrible side effects, and make him not want to take them. This is true of many drugs that allow our lives to be lengthened-it is not the job of medicine to address quality of life issues. The elderly miss their friends who have died, and when they outlive their children they never recover-even if the children were elderly when they died. We now have new guidelines about preventive health measures for the elderly-no colonoscopies without cause for people over 80, limiting pelvic exams for women over 50, etc. My mother finds this appalling. And while I see the point of looking at numbers and reducing the number of tests run brings the cost of medicine down, I also see her point-preventive care catches cancers earlier and saves money too. But which is the right answer? I'm guessing that the people who write these guidelines didn't ask anyone over 80 how they felt about them. Many of them tell me that they would not object to not being kept alive simply for the sake of being kept alive. Before my father's health began to decline, my mother used to visit nursing homes with her friend every Monday, and she told me over and over that many of the residents felt that they didn't see any real reason to be alive anymore. Sadly, sometimes it hurts to be old.
In the past the word "crone" was not a pejorative. But now it is. We don't value the old for their wisdom, and the lessons they learned in their younger years. I look at my stepsons, nieces and nephews (who are all just about grown now, and some have children of their own) and wonder why they don't see how similar my life was to what they are going through-I could save them so much pain. But I am old enough to know the truth-my mother felt the same way about her 5 children, and could not keep us from the necessity of learning the lessons on our own. My friends and I have been where the kids are now, and can look back and see where we screwed up, but we don't get do-overs, and the kids don't want to believe that choices and mistakes are repeated generation to generation. That may be the cruelest cut of all.
***Song "My Back Pages," Bob Dylan, 1964
Kathy Bates, actor from such movies as "Fried Green Tomatoes," and the recently cancelled TV series, "Harry's Law"
Roseann (Barr) comedian, actor, political activist