Aging gracefully was no doubt a concept invented by someone in their 30s. A few more decades and he or she would have known better. There is nothing graceful about aging.
I used to be one of those 30-somethings, and the target of my frustration was, of course, my mother, who had long blonde hair and bangs well into her 70s. When I arranged for her and my aunt and uncle to sit in the VIP booth at the Democratic convention in 1988, my only request was that she wear her hair up. I didn’t know where to start on the clothes. At the time, I used to tell my mother that she wore clothes that were too young for me! Well, not exactly. They were too small, but it took me a few decades to get that, too.
People who were not my mother’s children found her “youthfulness” refreshing, or something. When we were flying in on the campaign plane to Boston in 1984, I told my mother to meet me at general aviation, and gave her detailed instructions as to where it was, telling to wait inside or in her car and we would form a motorcade. As the plane landed, I wondered if she’d made it. I shouldn’t have worried. The steps went down, and out on the tarmac came then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, and, barely visible in the bear hug he was giving her, my mother. Tip liked her. I was mortified.
She’s been gone almost 10 years, but I hear her voice all the time, especially as I confront for myself the oxymoronic idea that you can age with grace. I heard it just the other day, when I eyed the red-orange stretch jeans in my drawer. Appropriate for a doctor’s appointment? I heard my mother saying, “And you said I didn’t dress my age …”
I did say that. I throw the jeans in the corner, the first step on their way to Goodwill.
Aging, I have come to learn, is not only difficult, but also entirely unfair. Some people at 60 look and act just like they did at 40; and some look and act as if they were 80. Genes and luck have as much to do with the process as anything you can control, but we do try. Did I mention that I have long blonde hair?
My friend 85-year-old friend Bert is at the top of his game as a trial lawyer. He works harder than I do, and I work about as hard as anyone. My mother, when I visited her at 80, was a frail old woman — indeed, it was hard to believe the small woman in her wheelchair was connected in any way to the booming voice in my head.
The author Sue Miller wrote a wonderful passage in her novel “The Senator’s Wife” about a 70-year-old woman waking up in the morning and taking an inventory of her body to see what hurts. When I read the book, I realized I’d started doing that when I turned 50.
There is, as we always joke, nothing good about aging except that it beats the alternative. I lost two friends who were younger when they died than I am now. They never got old. Neither did my father, who died at 54. How can we so curse our good fortune?
Of course, the hardest part of aging is not the wrinkles or even the aches and pains, but the sadness that comes with losing parents and friends, the melancholy of seeing your children leave home and go off on their own. How I yearn for the days when they held my hand as we crossed the street. But there is a prayer you often hear at Jewish funerals that asks the mourners to consider, even if we could stop time, would we really deny our children the opportunity to grow up and experience all that life has to offer? I would not.