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Welcome to the Middle Distance where youth fades into a fond, distant dream, and old age looms ahead — a stalker, a toothless flasher in a dirty raincoat. Do we picture ourselves hoary, sturdy Barbara Bushes as we round the bend? Wild-haired Phyllis Dillers?
No. The truth is, we cannot imagine ourselves as old people. It’s as simple as that. We can remember youthful incarnations of ourselves, but looking into the eyes of our elderly parents, we cannot imagine becoming them. We are still their children, finding our way, figuring out what we want to be when and if we ever grow up.
Jamie Lee Curtis, in her Activia yogurt commercials on television, represents the persistent pretense of the aging Baby Boomer: still fit and attractive, especially if she can get a good haircut, her best years ahead if she can just keep the systems working, the pipes unplugged.
We are AARP, whether we like it or not. We read articles on unwanted hairs in unwanted places. We glance uneasily at the cratered, mottled scalp of a bald contemporary, wondering when that shiny bowling ball turned into a map of the moon, wondering what does melanoma look like? We flip through page after page of glossy advertising for anti-wrinkle potions and creams, and avert our eyes when we come to the ad for a walk-in bathtub, a thickly robed old man and woman hobbling in for a soak. We don’t want to imagine their naked bodies or how long the wait must be for that tub to fill.
We can no longer make fun of the iconic voice of old age made famous by Mrs. Fletcher and Lifeline Medical Alert: “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” We do what we can to avoid falling, having gotten the osteoporosis diagnosis, the knee replacement, the new hip. The presidential campaigns threaten to gut Medicare and we choose to believe it will never happen.
I remember feeling frightened by the sights and sounds of old age when I was a girl. My old grandfather spit into a coffee can, hacked a wet, spidery cough and gripped the arms of his La-Z-Boy to get up, and I kept my distance. My grandmother lay on the unfolded sleeper sofa, its upholstered surface nubby and scratchy, in and out of consciousness through her last Christmas with us. As she lay dying of colon cancer, I grew more afraid of the pain in her eyes, her distant look. I thought this is what it is to be old. She was barely in her mid-sixties.
Now, approaching 60, I can only hope that Plato was right, that spiritual eyesight improves as physical eyesight fades with age. Who could have made me believe, when I was thirty, when I was forty, when I was fifty, that I would be doing a dance of delight over the discovery of new reading glasses with built-in headlights? Hallelujah! I can see the menu in a dim restaurant. I can read the small-print instructions, read in bed without wrenching my shoulder to reach the bedside lamp!
Small pleasures, miniature triumphs, the great but miniscule rewards of aging.
I have a beautiful friend, an older woman with daughters nearly my age, who had a stroke about a decade ago. She survived and rehabbed and maintained much of her good health and her brilliant mind, but lost a good deal of her ability to speak spontaneously. She was not elderly when it happened, but has grown old under the influence of the stroke.
I see her from time to time, out with her husband who is older than her and just beginning to show signs that he is no longer invulnerable. They enjoy a quiet dinner together, a night on the town. My friend comes and leaves in a wheelchair, her neck wrapped in a brightly-colored shawl, her white hair glowing, her skin smooth and pale.
When I saw her last, in early spring, we talked about what was beginning to bloom.
“Did you … smell the lilacs?” she asked, slowly, steadily.
We talked a bit more, about her granddaughter, about my children, and about time passing. “I don’t know where time goes,” I said. “I know I’m getting older, but I still think I’m forty.”
I stood up to leave her table and leaned over for a kiss. She was still forming her reply. She looked up and we hooked eyes. A wise smile crossed her face.
She said: “May … you … always … be.”
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.