Over the past few months, I’ve spent some time with a friend and have seen a disturbing trend emerge. She thinks we’re old. (FYI, we’re the same age — 54. )
Old? At 54? Please.
But I’ve heard her say it more than once, prefacing remarks with “Because we’re old” or “We’re old now so . . .” She believes it right down to her socks. Because she believes it, it’s coming true years before it has to.
And it makes me sad.
This is a woman in full possession of her mental faculties, a woman with a quick wit and ready laugh, a woman devoted to her family and friends. She’s a talented writer and musician and craft-person and gardener. She hikes and bikes and swims and rock climbs. Sure, she has her share of aches and pains and grey hairs (you don’t get to 54 without racking up a few of each), but she’s hardly infirm.
Except in her perception of who she is.
Her shoulders round forward with the unmistakable signs of an early dowager’s hump. She walks like an old woman, a fact her husband pointed out to me with some angst when she was out of earshot. It embarrasses him.
(I’ll reserve my opinion on his behavior for another time.)
I’m not sure why this is happening to my friend, why she would choose to see 54 as old. It’s only a number, after all. Her mother is still going strong in her 80s — that means my friend could have at least another 30 years of life ahead of her. Why spend it old when you don’t have to?
I don’t have an answer and, indeed, I suppose I should not. It’s not my life, after all, it’s hers. She can do with it as she likes and it’s not my job to judge her. My job is to make of my life what I can. To paraphrase Dylan Thomas, I have no intention of going gently into any sumbitchin’ good night. I’ve spent too many years of my life living up to the expectations of others, fulfilling their hopes and needs and desires while ignoring my own. I’m not wailing and moaning here, just stating fact. I don’t blame them so much as I blame myself for being easily manipulated, a carpet. I don’t believe our lives are meant to be lived in total selfishness, but neither should we continually sacrifice ourselves on behalf of other. Do that, and you’ll get to the end thinking, “Wait! I want do-overs so I can get it right.”
My niece Leslie Cootware was born with Cystic Fibrosis in 1964. She died in 1989. Once she became aware — really AWARE — that her life was finite, she grabbed it with both hands. Horses were her passion. The dusty environs of a barn was probably the worst place in the world for her, but she would not give up that love. And when her doctor advised against her planned trip to Europe, she said, “I’ll never be more healthy than I am at this moment,” and she went — carrying the jeans she stood up in, two tee-shirts, and seven pair of underwear. (The shirts got washed on alternate days and hung to dry overnight; the underwear got thrown out each morning.) She sailed. She drank beer with friends. She laughed. She watched baseball with her dad and poured as much love into her mother and sister and brother and nephew as she could. And when the time came to finally let go, when it was clear there was no more time left, she made the informed choice of medical coma to ease her passing and went out on a beam of light. (I’m not being creative or artsy here; I was with her when she died. I felt the surge of energy and heard her voice. Don’t believe me? That’s okay. I know what I know.)
Leslie and so many others like her teach us that life is for living. And every time I catch myself forgetting that lesson, I figuratively kick myself in the head and begin again. Because time is short. It will be over before we realize, and we who live each day as if we will never die can learn a lesson from those who know differently.
Grab it with both hands, people, and wring it dry in whatever way best suits you.