It takes courage to age.
We wake one morning, look in the mirror and see that our bodies have changed. We notice lines on our faces, sagging skin, less hair on our heads, yet more hair in places where it’s not supposed to grow.
My body betrays me, for I am young inside. Our inner selves and spirit are eternally young, which is one of the existential mysteries. Yet our external bodies betray that spirit, illuminating our lives mapped on our faces for all to see. Is our walk a shuffle or a firm stride? Do we stand erect or bent? Is there a wobble or imbalance in our movements? However, deep within ourselves, we feel the energy of youth: enough life remains ahead to live and dare to dream, and we hope to do even more in our seventh and eighth decades. Is this denial, hope eternal, truth?
We are energy, and that energy starts with birth, continues through death, and begins again in rebirth—this is the Law of Nature. But in this moment of life, our now, our spirit seeks a bit more: another day, more springtimes, colorful autumns, waves splashing against the shore, and the majesty of every sunrise and sunset. Yes, we want a bit more. And, why not?
I euthanized my beloved feline, Abbey, this past Monday. She was twelve years old, and we rescued one another nine years ago when I moved into my Athens treehouse apartment. The above image shows Abbey alive but in an ethereal, blissful sleep.
How did this happen so suddenly? There were signs with Abbey as there are for us, and I ignored them because Covid was rampant, and I couldn’t visit a vet except on the phone. The first signs were a tiny mole behind her right ear and a little soft lump in her tummy area that the vet believed, without seeing her, was fatty tissue. Time marched on through Covid and the loss of my car. About three months ago, Abbey’s behavior changed. She was lively, eating, and playing with her toys, but turned on me to bite, howled at times for no apparent reason, and rolled at my feet in the dark of night, causing several significant falls. I believed these were behavioral aberrations, but a growing disquiet took root, yet I suppressed it for all seemed well on the surface.
Cancer permeated Abbey’s body, though she seemed content, especially while lounging on our windowsills, following the sun’s journey throughout the day. Yet things were not right with her or me, for I refused to abandon the delusion that she was wholly well. Nonetheless, cancer entered Abbey’s body with silence and stealth, and I refused to acknowledge what I knew to be true: her tumors were growing and malignant. My second heartbeat, Abbey, this is for you. (I took a poetic license from The Bard, changing pronouns from ‘he’ to ‘she.)
When she shall die,
Take her and cut her out in little stars,
and she will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night.
~ Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet
I do not know when I acknowledged I was old, as our society defines it in chronological age. Yet here I am at seventy-eight years, soon to enter my seventy-ninth, and close to the advent of my eighth decade. I never thought that aging would catch up with me! Aging and dying were for other people, and I believed death was in the distance. When I turned seventy, I did not consider myself a senior.
I’m keenly aware I’ve reached another stage in unfolding my life’s journey. So, I embrace a kinder, gentler relationship with my body and reframe how my mind perceives aging. I am grateful for the years I’ve had and have now: This human existence is profound, perhaps rare, and is to be cherished no matter what is happening.
This essay, the courage to age, is not intended to dismiss the challenges of those with terminal or disabling diseases. I could write further on subjects you know about, such as ageism, an inadequate healthcare system, sloppy eldercare, nursing homes, and aides who do not help. At the same time, doctors bombard the elderly with twenty bottles of unaffordable drugs daily that cause them more distress. These issues deserve much more attention than I can provide here and now.
There is a stigma about aging in our culture. An overarching societal assumption is that because our hair is graying, crinkles reside at the corners of our eyes and mouths, and we walk a little slower; people treat us as infants. Do people not realize that we are Wisdom Keepers and RELEVANT? Whether one is educated or not has nothing to do with having wisdom or being relevant in this life. Not treating Elders with dignity, respect, and honor is shameful.
I recognize that I must embrace my body’s inabilities to do things I took for granted and breezed through just a few years ago. Each decade asks us to compromise, surrender another aspect of our bodies and lives, and cooperate with our physical capabilities and liabilities. Gratitude for being alive helps us reinvent ourselves and be relevant, continuing to contribute to our world and our families in whatever ways possible. I choose to spend time writing and creating painterly photographic images. Others find their joy in their children and grandchildren. What we cannot do is focus on what we perceive as loss. What I’m about to say may sound insensitive, but lack of compassion is not my intention: Gratitude for what no longer remains in our lives is a blessed release.
Looking forward to our remaining time opens new visions of who we are and what we can offer through our beautifully mapped faces of wisdom. Being grateful is how we can joyfully age.
We may walk a little slower, sit in a wheelchair, or breathe with oxygen. This adagio passage gives us more time to smile at one another, enjoy the newness of spring, hold a newborn grandchild gazing into innocent eyes and ponder the cotton candy white clouds moving across a robin-egg blue sky.
Yes, it takes courage to age, but we are the Wisdom Keepers. As cherished gifts, we must learn to adapt, accept, and redefine how we are relevant to ourselves and others with each new day, month, and year.