This was a heartfelt, thoughtful, rich and a bit of a heartbreaking read. I want to respect your time and energy investment by doing what I can to respond in kind.
My folks, who were born in the early 1900s around 1910 or so, grew up in another era. Smoking wasn’t bad for you, in fact doctors shilled them. Dad drank and smoked of his life, and when he hit right about my age, his body rebelled. He was no longer a farmer, and after he’d finally quit he chewed candies instead. In that wicked beauty of utter denial, he never thought that eating sugar all day would pile on a huge belly.
I’m going to write a story about this so stay tuned but here’s the piece. My mom, who grew up doing Jack LaLane on the rattan rugs of our house, gave up after a while. Food was too fun and exercise was work. Yah, it is. But then she didn’t grow up athletic while the other three of us did. I LOVE to do hard work, hence slinging iron for 45 years. It’s a lifestyle I copped early on after working on the farm for my father. Early values, lifetime values.
Your story reminds me of a piece I heard on NPR not long ago about a father and son photographic team who took daily photographs of the grandfather’s dying process. At 93, the spry old guy just thought he was going to live forever.Then one day he began to decline, and they began to document. Right down to the weeping bedsores, the sack of skin, the clouding eyes. It was awful to hear but it was done with love and respect. The grandson, who was the better photographer, did much of the work. They cared for him at home, and were assaulted with all the smells and agonies of the coming death rattle. You have to admit 93 is a good long time and a good long life. We owe the earth our bodies, and the time must come. I believe both learned a great deal about quality of life in that process, love, loss, and the Authority of Life.
I watched both my parents decline. After a long separation, I saw my big brother in his late fifties. He had smoked and done drugs for years, then spent untold hours climbing at high altitude without SPF. He looked thirty years older. I paid attention to all these things, made different choices, and they have paid off. Mostly. Age is still my hand maiden and I’m not such a fool that I try to pass for something I’m not. I’m by god 65 but it’s the way I live that 65 that makes the difference.
For years my parents would ask me about this or that diet tip or exercise tip. They were being polite.Mom’s ancient exercise bike became a drying rack for undies, and as her vision failed, that was further reason to sit more. Dad just packed on the pounds and avoided work.
I hear your sadness; part of it is the aching reality of watching our once vibrant folks decline. My mom said to me many years ago that I wasn’t giving them permission to age. It was very insightful. We have to embrace our own mortality if we embrace theirs. The question you raise is the quality of that life as they move through time. A good chunk of it is choice- to move, to eat well, to get engaged, to have a purpose. To back off things that poison us. I hear so many people say, well, it’s too late now. It is if you say so. I’ve seen too many good stories about turnarounds. Life likes to celebrate itself.
Your comment about friends who tell you how “old” you are have, as we all do, wow. The have an horrific shock coming when they themselves suddenly arrive at sixty plus. It’s an OH SHIT moment, indeed. It’s not only ridiculous but insulting and speaks to the hubris of youth. I once saw an Elle Magazine cover that featured a 17-year old singer. The quote on the cover, and it torques me to this day, was to the effect that “I think we’re so much more interesting at 17.” You insufferable arrogant TWIT. I cancelled my subscription on the spot. I am so effing sick and tired of this monumentally foolish uber celebration of youth, youth that hasn’t earned anything, learned anything, paid any real prices, gained any true perspectives. That’s a very broad brush and it’s full of holes but in general, show me a typical 17-year-old and I will show you someone who is fundamentally still clueless about most things in life- at least in America. At 17, they’re supposed to be. That’s what life is for. To build stories.
Can I learn from one? Of course. Show me how to work this phone, wouldja? that’s useful. But interesting? That takes life. For those of you with uber talented kids, before you throw spears, note that I said “typical.” The badass kids who marched on Washington and showed us more cojones than all of Congress were gutsy but they still haven’t lived life. Life scars and builds and hardens and softens and expands us. We hope. They are riding that tidal wave of youthful optimism that at some point crashes on the hard sharp rocks of realities. With luck, a lot of optimism will survive. But that’s life. It teaches us how to choose to see- opportunity, failure, how to regroup, or how to give up.
That mag also included an interview with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Kindly she’s not model material but she’s goddamned INTERESTING even if you don’t like her politics. Don’t waste the time of day on nitwits who comment on your age. It passes fast enough without obsessing about it.
My parents did a great job of teaching me what NOT to do with my health. I’m the last one in my family. What I owe them is a humongous legacy. The family buck stopped with me- and I mean to make that light shine as brightly as I can before I go out.
I find that old saw that “age is just a number” a little annoying. It smacks of denial. We are what we are. What we cram into those years, the life and love and experiences and all the heartache and heartbreak that go with it make us rich or poor, grateful or bitter. We stop living when we give up. Then we’re just marking time. Unfortunately depression among older women is very common, but that’s another story. My mother was “39” for twenty additional years. I woudn’t dream of doing such a thing. I LOVE being 65. I earned every single year and wrinkle.
The best thing you can do is live vividly, pay the price for your risks, own your mistakes, risk everything for your passion, and take care of your body like it’s the only one you have. Cuz it is, Candace, don’t take as long as I did to get the message. That’s what keeps us young: joy, enthusiasm, gratitude, looking for what’s good and right in people instead of what to judge, keeping a wide open mind, never stop exploring, never take anything too seriously or personally, and always look for the funny. That’s what keeps me buoyed.
Thanks for your thoughtful, considered comments. I hope I honored them.