When I turned fifty a couple of years back, I was okay with it. Yet for some reason now that it is 2010 and we’ve started a whole new decade, I am not okay with that. Just slipping into this new decade has made me feel old.
As if I wasn’t feeling old enough, I spent Sunday night having a discussion about the last decade with a group of youth. I am helping to oversee a youth group at my church so a look back at the last decade seemed an appropriate topic. For us rapidly aging still technically middle aged adults, the 2000s was just one decade of many. However, the youth are of high school age. For them the 2000s was the decade they began to retain memories. They sort of remember September 11, 2001 (they were in elementary school) but did not quite understand what all the fuss was about, why some of their classmates were abruptly pulled out of schools and their teachers were whispering in the hallways. Of the 1990s, they have fragmentary memories at best. Having finished their first proper decade, since they had nothing to compare it with, the last decade seemed all right. Whereas to the other adult leader and me it was, what a rotten decade! Good riddance! Of course, these youth were kept well insulated from reality by school, family and friends. The dramatic swings in the stock market never bothered them. Neither did the high unemployment or mortgage foreclosures. Their parents had stable enough jobs where they were not impacted.
For me personally, the last decade was a blur. I was busy being a working adult and I had my hands full. The decade felt like it was squeezed into two years or so. I keep asking myself, can it really be 2010 already? Where did the hell did the decade go?
One thing is certain: I feel ten years older. As readers know, my body has been complaining about this aging thing for a while. I had two relatively minor surgeries last year and will have tarsal tunnel surgery next week. Despite valiant efforts, my body is definitely moving toward decrepitude. I know none of us escapes this world alive. In the 2000s, I sort of lived on the illusion that I might be an exception. “I am not planning to die,” I would tell people who asked, and sometimes even those who did not.
Tackling the unpleasant business of creating my will last year was the extent that I planned for death. I am much more engaged in planning for a happy retirement, which I hope will have most of the joys of living minus the long workweeks and other family responsibilities. Now that it is 2010, old age, which used to be an abstraction, feels uncomfortably close. If nothing else, I can technically retire from my job in two years, though I am unlikely to do so.
One way I can get a sense of time passing is to simply add up the decades on my fingers. For me five decades are in the past so there is one whole hand accounted for. I hold up my other hand. Will I live another five decades? The odds are stacked against me. Living to a hundred is almost certainly out, barring some miraculous drugs or medical procedures that I probably could not afford. If I manage to make it to ninety, I will likely be in a nursing home or assisted living facility somewhere. If I am lucky, I will make it to age eighty and still be in good health, like my father. Yet if, like my father, I manage to live that long, I will likely end up in somewhere like where he is, a retirement community.
A retirement community has many great features but is also your easy gateway to an assisted living facility, which in turn is a gateway to a nursing home. There (if you are lucky) you probably leave this life reasonably well tended but not pleasantly. I imagine I will leave it like my mother did, unable to control your own bowels or get out of your own bed unassisted. In a retirement community, death is not an abstraction. It is all around you. People you see bounding down the hallways one day are in intensive care the next, and planted underground a few weeks later. You can see it in the hallways where many of the still mobile are pushing around walkers with little tennis balls on their feet. Many of the rest are in wheelchairs. Their bathrooms come with sturdy stainless steel railings on the sides of the tub and extra wide doors. That’s why the bathrooms have convenient pull cords to summon help in an emergency. You can count on someone on your floor passing away during the year, and chances are there will be two or three more. The most popular activity at my father’s retirement community is not dipping in the community whirlpool tub, but checking out the death notices in the lobby.
Aside from the problems of holding my body together (which used to never complain) there are increasingly visible signs that I am aging. My facial skin is sagging. My neck is looking somewhat saggy and wrinkled. The other day I looked at my left knee and the skin on it was drooping. Where did that come from? Age spots have been developing for years, but now my skin in general looks like sand on a beach, blown into drifts by the omnipresent wind. My eyes look more bloodshot than I remember. At least my hair has not gotten more noticeably gray in the last few years. However, that could be due to faltering vision.
Now that I am in a new decade and feel sufficiently aged, I am realizing that dying is actually a very long process. It starts around age eighteen when your first brain cells die off. Part of declining the right way is apparently gracefully accepting your increasing decrepitude. Those aches, pains and surgeries are your war wounds. In my case, they are the result of dodging and parrying with life for five decades. I am fortunate that this is all I am dealing with. Just a few generations removed from mine at age 52 I would more likely be planted six feet under. If I were still alive, I would likely be in a lot worse shape and in a lot more pain. Many of my joints would be inflamed (since anti-inflammation pills had not yet been invented), and I would probably stoop or need a cane. On the plus side, death and dying would probably be a lot less mysterious. It would be common to see your peers go to your reward. Attending funerals would be routine rather than an exception. Perhaps you would be grateful even to be alive in any pained or infirmed state.
In any event, I am still disgruntled that it is 2010 already and I probably will feel this way for a while. Like it or not I am moving rapidly toward an older stage of life. While it may be more painful and infirmed than in the past, at least it is still life. Perhaps time will reveal some compensation for aging that currently eludes me.
I can hope. It’s not like I have any choice in the matter. I am caught in a system beyond my control. It is only now that I am feeling this truth.