On Aging: Accepting What Is
“Don’t trust anybody over thirty!” My rallying cry during the Sixties, when I was twenty-something, seemingly bulletproof and forever young, living as though those days would never end. Far out psychedelic excursions, cross-country road trips fueled by Budweiser and amphetamines, hitting the sauce at my favorite watering holes, dicey sexual behavior, and more. But time is inexorable. I’m now closing in on eighty years of age, having turned seventy-seven last April. And I find myself challenged to come to grips with the certainty that I have many more years behind me than in front of me.
Yes, I’m a fit, healthy, and reasonably self-aware guy who continues to play handball and go on trail runs, has no serious medical issues or need for meds, and keeps up with a spunky ten-year-old daughter (most of the time). And up to this point, I have used my health and vitality as a buffer against the reality of aging. But when I look in the mirror and see my emerging turkey neck and my shock of gray hair, my age becomes more difficult to deny, sometimes reinforced by younger shoppers at Whole Foods who insist on holding the door open for me or refer to me as “sir” (an appellation that smacks of ageism in my defiant mind).
Though loathe to admit it, here’s the truth: I’m scared shitless of growing old, fearful about what aging might bring. Will I be able to continue running, hiking, chopping firewood, carrying my daughter Gracelyn around on my shoulders? Will my wife Shonnie (twenty-eight years younger than I am) still find me attractive? Will I retain the clarity of mind necessary to continue writing? Will I be able to care for myself and my loved ones? Will my contributions to my community still be valued? Or will I eventually be warehoused away in an institution for the elderly and infirm, where immobility and dementia are the order of the day?
In the midst of all these unknowns, I sometimes joke (much to Shonnie’s chagrin) about taking the apocryphal Eskimo course of action when the time arrives—head out into the wilderness and let nature take its course. But despite my attempts to push reality away, I’m finally coming to understand that I create unnecessary suffering for myself any time I demand that life be other than exactly as it is. Pretending to be young doesn’t slow the aging process any more than pretending to be a tough guy in my youth made me an authentic man. So how am I to move into acceptance, admit that I’m a step slower on the handball court, that my skin is thinner and more wrinkled, that my energy level is slipping? How am I to confront my fears and accept the reality of aging and its related limitations?
I believe this process begins by letting go of my fantasy, telling myself the truth, grieving what has been (will be?) lost, and accepting what is. Much easier said than done, it seems. However, on some of my recent trail runs, I’ve stopped and leaned against a towering tree that’s showing signs of decay and silently commiserated with it. “We’ve both lived a long and fulfilling existence, big fellow. And as the cycle of nature dictates, we’re on the downhill side of our lives.” Eventually I run on, leaving the tree swaying in the mountain breezes, my mind somewhat more at ease about aging . . . but not necessarily the destiny that lies at the end of the road.
Let me be clear: I don’t believe I’m going to some heavenly reward, some pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye. Iris Dement sums it up for me pretty well: “I think I’ll let the mystery be.” Though an afterlife would certainly be a very pleasant surprise. I do believe, however, that my spirit will live on in the writings I’ve left behind, but most importantly to me, in the hearts of those who love me. And perhaps my ashes will help foster new growth in a garden planted by Shonnie and Gracelyn.
As previously noted, I’ve lived much of my life as though I had an infinite amount of time in my earthly form. Fortunately, I’m finally coming to realize that living a spiritual life means being conscious of my eventual death and being ready to go at any moment—my memoir complete, all affairs in order, everything said that is to be said, everything done that is to be done, releasing relationships that no longer serve me and nurturing those that do, atonement for my misdeeds, forgiveness extended to myself and others, no loose ends. To paraphrase John Donne, you need never know for whom the bell tolls; in due course it tolls for all of us . . . and one day it will toll for me.