Well, I’m officially in my 57th year as of today. That’s 30 years past the shelf-life I’d given myself as a teenager obsessed with Janis Joplin, suicide poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, and the whole allure of an early death. To die young, tragically and misunderstood was once what I expected and hoped for. Then survival happened, and the next thing I knew I was 30, then 40, then 50. And now? I can see a distant finish line, though I tend to look away and stay busy enough that it, too, will come and go before I know it and I’ll be a true Throw Back Thursday, remembered in an eternal online presence and the hearts of some.
What is age, really? Is it a synonym for time? Neither can be concretized, except as a list of symptoms, experienced by their effects. Poor vision, bothersome knees. For men, getting up several times a night to urinate as the prostate swells. The whole ‘low-T’ phenomenon. And an increasing awareness that no matter how much I tell myself time is an illusion, it passes anyway in what feels like faster and faster annual installments.
I’m of the generation who knew AIDS as a new and terrifying thing. Mysterious death visiting familiar friends and faces. A rare disease striking the promiscuous and kinky, until that was all of us and we faced the dual challenges of protecting ourselves and caring for those whose protection had failed. I watched my partner Jim spend two years deteriorating and finally die in a hospice facility. Then I moved to New York, 1993, to get as far away as I could from the ghosts I saw on every Los Angeles street corner. That was 21 years ago. I’m still here, turning 56 and writing about it.
I’m not one of those who believes “you’re only as old as you feel.” I believe we’re only as old as our bones. My fingers are 56. My legs are 56. My eyes are 56. I’d say that pretty much means I’m 56, too. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with it. And if you ever call me “56 years young” I’ll roll my eyes and wish you the best.
There’s nothing wrong with getting older. There’s nothing wrong with getting old, either, but old has become the O-word, a euphemism like so many others. ‘Senior?’ How dare you. We’ve allowed society’s fear and contempt of aging to determine our language and our thinking about our own processes. As for me, I’ll take the Senior Discount and I’ll refer to myself as old—if not yet, soon—with the same kind of pride reserved for my accomplishments or being self-sufficient or any of the other things I might take pride in. Trees, elephants and rivers don’t mind being called old, and neither should I.
I know I’ll be 60 in no time. I’ve made it sound as if I’m not troubled by any of it, but that’s not true. The hardest part of aging for me is watching the ones I love age, too. My sister Cathy is 63 and I could never imagine that! I still can’t. My parents are gone. My husband, a year older than I am, will be 60 a year sooner. If I could stop aging, I would stop it for them. I would fix them in time so I could love them forever as they were and are. I’d spare them the consequences we all pay of simply living long enough. But that’s not an option. My option is to know I’m a year older, accept it, and do what I can to pay attention to each day before it’s gone.