They say it’s just a number. On your birthday, you’re only a day older than the day before, not a year older. And, you’re only as old as you — think? feel? behave?
Ultimately, however, your age is your age (don’t you just love tautology?), if you’ve been fortunate enough to make it however far you’ve made it. Reassuring clichés don’t do much to dispatch the inevitable thoughts that pop up when the human odometer reaches another two-digit marker ending in a zero.
A couple of weeks ago, I quietly turned 70 — quietly, because I pretty much kept it to myself, not wanting to “make a fuss.” Why, do you suppose? Embarrassment? I can’t imagine what for — it’s not a crime, social faux pas or scandalous disease. Chagrin? Not if you value still being alive on the planet. Inability to cope? Well, the coping doesn’t look much different than it did a when I was 69.
The truth is, I don’t know how to think about it. Maybe that’s a baby boomer thing — mortality has never been part of our master plan, and we remain startled by the concept. I don’t know what age I don’t look a day older than. I don’t know what the “new” age 70 is. Or if I’m expected to act differently, or be entitled to special treatment. The other day, a clerk at the Methow Valley Thriftway asked if I qualified for the senior discount, and I didn’t know whether to hug her or collapse laughing at the absurdity of the question.
Vanity is one of the last things to go, but I have no illusions or delusions about myself. Like J. Alfred Prufrock, I grow old, I grow old, and do not expect to hear the mermaids sing to me. When I look in the mirror, I see the same thing that everyone I encounter sees. I also remember, with some wistfulness, the 20-, 30-, 40- and 50-year-old versions of that face. In many respects, I’m pretty much the same person — a day-dreamy, underachieving, pun-loving, stubborn, authority-resistant smart ass with a serious streak of principle about things I think are right and wrong. Also, I have some good qualities.
Yes, I’m well past being able to have a Firewise-approved birthday cake. But as “they” also say, consider the alternative. Seventy used to be “old” until we began stretching our life expectancies closer to the triple-digit spectrum. In literature, 70 is decrepitude and senescence. In the play I’m directing at The Merc Playhouse, one of the characters is described as an elderly gentleman, but he has a 20-year-old son — so how elderly could he be? People past 70 were, in days gone by, venerated as elders and/or relegated to the “any day now” queue for shuffling off this mortal coil.
There are lots of ways to get dead, yet amazingly, here I am. I figure it comes down to good genes, the right attitude and plain old luck. I got this far by surviving cancer and two nearly fatal staph infections. I’ve also had a lot of good fortune along the way, and been blessed with the company and support of many wonderful human beings.
Seven decades in, I don’t know how to sort out the randomness of fate. Younger or contemporary family, friends and colleagues are gone “before their time,” whatever that means. Seems to me that your time is your time. My mother is in her 90s, active and alert. My father was barely 60 when he was killed by a car while he was in a crosswalk. I thought he was “old” until I reached 60 and realized that he got tragically shortchanged.
I probably sound more overwrought and self-absorbed by all this than I actually am because so far, 70 seems OK and full of promise, and contemplating the meaning of past, present and future is a good mental exercise. As for 80? That’s currently beyond my comprehension. When I get there, I’ll let you know what it’s like.