A ging happens. It’s kind of like the start of a downhill run on an old Flexible Flyer when you’ve forgotten to wax the runners. Movement is almost imperceptible at first, perhaps provoking impatience. It might even take a little push to get you going. Then, half-way down, you really begin to notice the momentum. Some feel exhilaration, a sense of being out of control. A certain fear comes up for others. Almost everyone wishes the ride would last a little longer, and many of us want to do it all over again, even though it means a long trudge back up that hill.
A special vocabulary has evolved to describe the inexorable transit from the moment of our conception to the moment of our demise. Initially, we say that we’re in utero. Once we’ve entered the world on our own terms, we refer to our progress as growing up, or if you prefer its more technical cousin, developing. Then comes the only optional term, as it were—maturing. They all (except the latter) accompany clearly demarcated phases of life that can be graphed on a time line. Most pregnancies, for instance, last forty weeks. Infancy generally runs from birth to about eighteen months, childhood from that point to age thirteen, and so on, until we graduate into adulthood. Some of the passages are marked by developmental milestones: infants become toddlers when they take their first awkward steps. Others are simply measured by time. Children automatically become teenagers on the thirteenth anniversary of their birth. These days adult status is officially conferred on us at twenty-one, ready or not.
Then come middle- and old-age, neither of which is well-defined at all. Somewhere in there, our reference to the advance of life switches from growing, or developing, to aging. But at what point? Exactly when does aging happen?
Ask a scientist and he or she will tell you that every cell in the body starts shrinking at twenty-nine, a little known and less than comforting thought. Yet few of us tend to associate with the idea of aging so early in the game. In the end, if you polled a hundred people you would likely get a hundred different answers.
For me it all began at forty-four, an auspicious sounding number. Two events in that same year signaled that I was seriously beginning to age. The first was my annual visit to the dentist. Well, almost annual. The only dental plan I have is to floss religiously so that I finish with enough of my own teeth to still get the job done, and these days the cost of a cleaning and a check-up sets me back over a third of a week’s pay. If my two girls come, too, then it’s a total wipe-out. My teeth look great, the hygienist informed me after giving them a once-over with her new high-pressure torture device. Then came the kicker: And your molars are wearing down nicely.
Just like aging itself, it took a while for that parting comment, so seemingly benign, to settle in. The appearance of silver, white and gray in my beard as much as a decade earlier hadn’t set off even the faintest alarm. Perhaps it is my fondness for calico cats. Nor had the increasing soreness in my legs and right arm the mornings after summer evenings spent running under softballs in center field. But somehow the thought of my teeth eroding from the innumerable times I had worked them against each other in order to chew my food cut straight to the marrow. I knew that teeth have a tendency to fall out as you grow old; it had never occurred to me that they wear down. Like uncarpeted stairs in a hundred-year-old house. That did it for me.
Not that this little discovery kept me awake at night, which seems to be part of the kindness of the design: By the time you realize you’ve been snuck up on you’re more or less ready to accept the inevitability of the whole business. Some of us more than others, I suppose. Just look at how a whole segment of the American economy has grown up around resisting aging—or at least the appearance of it. Some say we’ve become obsessed with youth. We’ve hidden away our old people, and tried to remove as many signs as possible of the process that got them there.
Which brings to mind Ram Dass’ story about joining Gold’s Gym the day he turned sixty. Determined to look forty again, he huffed and he puffed and he stretched and he lifted—and was grateful that when he gazed into the mirror without his glasses he could imagine he looked just as good as all of the buff thirty-somethings surrounding him.
In case you were wondering, I haven’t forgotten about the second event. Thanks to the unusually long arms that had given me such an unfair advantage as a young high school wrestler, I was able to hold out longer than most (literally) before I was forced to buy myself a pair of reading glasses. As the focal length of my vision continued to stretch, I just extended my arms a little farther from my head. But one morning I decided enough was enough. No more long-range squinting at the newspaper, waiting for the print to come into focus. I grabbed my coffee and drove straight to Kmart, where I unceremoniously plunked down ten bucks for a pair of low-power magnifiers. That was that.
But this time I was immediately aware of the significance of the occasion. Perhaps the earlier dental revelation had triggered the opening of a file on aging in my cluttered attic. As soon as I got home and tried out my new specs it was quite clear to me that I was crossing a line of some sort. And there would be no turning back.
In his humorous reflection on aging called Time Flies, Bill Cosby wrote that it’s the mind that’s the first to go. I don’t know, for me it seems to be the eyes, closely followed by the hair—which I suspect my vanity has kept me from revealing until now. (Yes, I’m slowly losing it, too.) Maybe it’s here I should also mention that this piece is being written while I am luxuriating on the Maryland shore, a sudden vulnerability of image no doubt aroused by the sight of so many bared young bodies with everything still in the right place.
But Cosby is absolutely dead on about one thing: Time does indeed fly. Far too fast. Here I am, hopefully only somewhere in the middle of my life, and I find myself wishing there were only some way to slow it down a little. It’s a bit like the question of the cup, I guess. You know, is it half-empty or half-full? On good days I feel as though my life is half-full, and I look forward to filling it the rest of the way in as relaxed and purposeful a manner as possible. On bad days, however, which I’m happy to report are far fewer in number, my life seems half-empty, like it’s draining away before I’ve had the chance to accomplish what I was put here to do. I feel frantic, driven by a vague fear that there just won’t be enough time, no matter how well I manage it.
There was an old Star Trek episode in which the Enterprise inadvertently passes through a weird time warp that causes the crew to age ten years every few hours. Several even advance to the skeleton stage before the Captain and Mr. Spock figure out how to maneuver their way back through the warp, thus reversing the effect and returning everyone to where they were before the misadventure began. Whoever dreamed that one up must have had the same fear.
It’s the losses associated with aging, I think, that cause me the most unease. I find myself already anticipating with increasing trepidation the disappearance of youthful drive and energy, of what little physical beauty I might ever have possessed, and ultimately, of course, of life itself. And it’s only natural to want to deny the things we are afraid of. Denial, according to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, is the first of four stages we all go through in dealing with loss. Interestingly, Kubler-Ross, who is best known for her pioneering efforts to assist the dying through the process consciously and with dignity, developed her initial insights while working with people who had just gone blind.
This is where Gold’s Gym and Rogaine come in. And hair dye, and fad diets. And why middle-aged men have a sudden urge to purchase sports cars, and women’s skin care budgets explode exponentially. My childhood friend is a dermatologist, and he makes a handsome living helping patients ward off looking older.
Anger is the second stage. I haven’t hit it yet, though I know plenty who have. The inability to do some things as fast or as well—or at all—any more just flat out pisses them off. They feel betrayed by their bodies. Every conversation is laced with a litany of physical complaints.
The third stage is called bargaining. A man showers a woman decades his junior with gifts, in return for the promise that she’ll help him feel young again. A woman pays her plastic surgeon a king’s ransom if he’ll make her look young again. We all make our own little deals when it comes time to stare down the fear of decrepitude.
Finally, says Kubler Ross, if we confront the painful truth of our losses and allow ourselves to grieve them, then we can arrive at acceptance. This is where we are at peace with what is. No more angst, wishing it wasn’t. No more false hopes and accompanying disappointments. I know people who are there and I must say it is very becoming. They are thankful for their remaining strength and ability. They count each new day as an unspeakable blessing. They’re ready to go when their time comes.
My ninety-year-old great aunt, my oldest surviving ancestor, is crippled by scoliosis, and yet she’s one of the happiest people I know. “My insides are great, it’s just the frame that’s bad,” she laments with a wry Italian smile. She keeps her mind sharp by working the Washington Post crossword puzzle every morning and sustains herself with simple pleasures like reading the newspaper, watching TV, getting her hair done, and going out to lunch once in a while.
Aunt Marie is a beautiful woman, a true queen. I love the pearly translucence of her skin. Unwittingly, or so it seems, she is teaching me about aging, encouraging me to put some of my fears to rest. First of all, she declares with her very being, not everything diminishes. Some aspects of us keep right on growing, such as wisdom and our capacity for love. Apparently, the potential for expanding our inner beauty never ceases if we do the kind of homework Kubler-Ross suggests.
Thanks to my aunt I’m beginning to understand that certain things fade away that are to be celebrated, not mourned, such as impatience and greed. I have already noticed, for example, that the hard edge seems to be wearing off my desire. I don’t need to be first all the time any more, or have the most or be the best. I’m much more willing to take life as it comes. And I’m beginning to appreciate myself exactly as I am, warts and all. Until quite recently, I didn’t think inner tranquility was something I would ever know in this lifetime, but now I recognize the possibilities.
It is not, I know, all wine and roses. I find my intolerance increasing—of indifference, stupidity, wastefulness, as well as the annoying habits of others. A certain cynicism has taken root in my outlook on the world—though it should be noted here that the Latin root for cynic is senex, meaning old person, meaning that as we grow older we learn to see through illusion. But my idealism has faded considerably, and that I regret very much. Also, the loss of independence can be very difficult to bear. I’ll never forget the day my ninety-five year-old former next-door neighbor phoned me from the nursing home, crying inconsolably. For the first time since he was a very young boy he was unable to put his pants on by himself and had to ask the nurse for help. Art was a proud man, a master craftsman for over fifty years. The blow to his dignity was devastating, you might even say fatal. He refused all visitors after that and died two weeks later—without becoming ill.
These days I find I naturally wake up earlier, more aware, I suppose, of the limited nature of the time that remains. Like Aunt Marie I try to start out each day with a respectful gratitude. I try to laugh inside when I catch myself gazing enviously at taut, well-muscled torsos on the beach. I try not to take life so damn seriously. And whenever I notice clouds of foreboding forming on the horizon, threatening to darken this new-found perspective on aging, I try to picture Aunt Marie saying in her soft, slightly southern accent, “Aw now, honey, don’t you worry about a thing.”
Chris Mercogliano has been a teacher at the Free School in Albany, New York, since 1973, working with children from ages two to fourteen. In 1987 he was named co-director. An environmental activist, he has recently been appointed to the mayor’s advisory committee on recycling and waste reduction. He is also an essayist, poet, organic farmer, mason, plumber, and journeyman carpenter. He is the author of Making It Up As We Go Along, a book about his experiences at the Free School over the past twenty years.
Photo by Jack Delano. Children gathering potatoes on a large farm, vicinity of Caribou, Aroostook County, Maine. Schools do not open until the potatoes are harvested. Oct 1940. (LOC)