Reflection #7 My Eighth Decade of Life

A friend a few years older than I reminds me that in celebrating my 71st Cinco de Mayo birthday next week, I am actually in my eighth decade of life. Dr. Ezekiel Emmanuel, writing for the Atlantic, suggests that those of us lucky enough to enjoy 75 years of relative good health and productivity are the winners in life’s lottery; we can hardly expect, and perhaps we shouldn’t want, more.

But of course I do want more, greedy as I am for another gorgeous sunset, another glass of rich, plummy red wine, another moment with my small grandchildren who display more empathy than I’d think possible for those so early in life, another book whose sentences take my breath away, another moment on the water with the wind in my face, another trusting revelation from a friend. I want one more diner breakfast with my well-traveled daughter, who has eaten around the world, and one more sushi lunch with my son, who leaves the best bits for me. I want more time to plumb the depths of memory of my husband Jerry, who died young, and my father Wendell, who died even younger, and my nine month old sister Barbara who died before I hardly knew her at all. I want to see my grandchildren grow up.

I haven’t finished turning new corners in relationships, in the geography of travel, or in life. That’s what the best of life is about for me, the newness of what is just around the bend, even a new understanding of something that is old and worn. My friendship with Minga, the woman I call my Panamanian sister, began when I was a young Peace Corps volunteer and was rooted in simple gratitude; she was motherly to me. Now we are both old women, more open nuance. She has been freer in love than I: nine children and four partners, each monogamous in their time. Perhaps it was necessity, dictated by poverty and the need to get on in a small rural village without much that came easily. Perhaps in this, in love, she is more ambitious, more risk-taking, more hopeful than I. I have more sophistication than she does, and more things: more education, more money, more travel, more visibility. Google her name and you will find nothing related to her. Google mine and you will, in .92 seconds, find 4520 hits, and I have been largely retired and out of the public eye since 2004, when I sold Jerry’s and my financial planning business. Perhaps in this, in the traditional markers of “success”, I have been luckier than Minga, born in a place with education for women, and medical care, and a safety net, and chances. Minga has reached that magical age, 75, and I am a few years behind. Our relationship is fuller. We ask more questions. We push back on each other. We laugh more freely, and from a deeper place in our bellies; truly from this vantage point the world can be very funny. My relationship with her remains oddly new, even though she has never moved more than a few hundred yards from the time and place where I first met her.

Having a birthday prompts me to think: where am I going next, with my time, my interests, my resources? What is in my control, and what is not, and how do I deal gracefully with the latter? What brings me joy; what can I do that brings others joy? Am I spectacularly, woefully wrong about anything, like the existence of God, and do I still have time to correct?  What risks are worth taking — like continuing to bike — and when is pulling back prudent rather than a retreat from the fullness of life? Who, and what, am I overlooking, probably to my own detriment? What balls am I still trying fruitlessly to inflate, because I don’t see or won’t acknowledge the gaping underside hole that makes my efforts forever without a point?

I had a big birthday party when I turned 50, hosted by Jerry and the kids, which I loved. I don’t think I’ve had a big, formal one since. This year I’ve asked for things that are quiet: dinner with a friend, a weekend cook-out with my kids and grandkids, the treat of a massage on the actual day.

I’m grateful for each day of this eighth decade of my life. I had a glimmering of it when my father died at 49, and knew if for sure when Jerry died in his 59th year: each day I have is a day Jerry or my father would have longed for. To be less than grateful, to proclaim myself bored or indifferent, to see life as less than blessing, is to dishonor their memories.

Quite unconsciously, while growing up after my father died, I internalized the thought that I too might have a foreshortened life. Everyone always said I was just like him, so why not in this way too, a person who dies suddenly and young? When I awoke on my 50th birthday, I recall feeling slightly surprised. What now? What do I do with all of this unexpected time? I had a friend back then, a lovely older woman named Gloria who had the gift of always saying the right thing. I shared with her that I felt a little odd about having outlived my father. She looked at me quizzically. “But of course he would have wanted you to.”

Of course. And Jerry too. So I will live each day to the fullest, and with gratitude. I’m curious about what comes with really old age, but not fearful. I gently correct those who say, “But you can’t be 71”. I am, actually, including everything that goes with being in my eighth decade: medication, some hip pain, occasional forgetfulness and repeating myself, a diminished ability to juggle so many things at the same moment. On the happier side, I take time to look often at the spectacular view out my window, even once in the middle of the night when I’d gotten up to go to the bathroom and saw a full, bright moon casting light over Puget Sound and through a wall of windows into my living space. I allow myself what I really enjoy, and turn down many of the “should’s”. I spend time with my small grandchildren, with friends, alone with a good book.

So far my mobility isn’t diminished, and I don’t notice much lessening of energy — both of those will be hard for me when they come. I carefully watch how older friends adapt to canes, to be driven instead of driving, to deciding not to travel very far any more.

Right now, LG. Life is good. Happy Cinco de Mayo to me, and to you as well.