Jean turned 92 years old last weekend. She’s one of the ladies I visit each week as a hospice volunteer. Her mind is sharp, her legs not so much, so she has to use a wheelchair.
On my way to the nursing home, I stopped at a grocery store and got her a small bouquet of flowers. When I walked through the door to her room and wished her happy birthday, Jean smiled.
“I’m so old!” she said. “92! Gawd, I never thought I’d be this old!”
For some reason, turning 92 really resonated with her. She mentioned how she still feels 25 years old, until she looks in the mirror and wonders how this all happened.
I can identify.
Aging never bothered me, until lately. I’ve always looked forward to celebrating birthdays. Like Jean, I feel 25 in many ways, despite those reminders that I’m not.
When it was time to start checking the over-40 box on forms, I noticed that men my age were featured in television commercials less often. And when they were, they were sitting in an old-fashioned bathtub, on a cliff, with the word “dysfunction” blazoned above their head. (I know, it’s much, much worse for women, who get hit with the age thing every step of the way.)
I played in an over-50 softball league until my rotator cuff wore out. I still played outfield. When a ball was hit over my head, my brain would remind me I’d made this catch a million times. After a few steps, my hamstrings would remind me that my brain is delusional and my legs more in tune with reality. The ball would sail over my outstretched glove and roll to the fence, with me in chase.
How can that be?
Several of my friends are approaching notable birthdays, and it’s gotten under their not-quite-so-young skin. I assume it’s universal. Maybe the realization that our lives come equipped only with a forward button – there’s no rewind. Oftentimes it feels like we’re on fast-forward. And we get that unsettling realization that we’re closer to the final credits than the opening ones.
It keeps you up at night sometimes.
I had a feel-your-age moment last August while I was covering a tennis tournament. A lot of the spectators from my age group show off perfect tans, smooth faces and un-gray hair. (I know how that works, but I’m going to be kind and not say anything.) I’ve covered the tournament many times, but this time I got to feeling like an alien: I was walking around the Land of Pretty People, and I myself was from the Island of Misfit Toys.
After one of Rafael Nadal’s matches, a couple of event volunteers sneaked into the back of the interview room and sat behind me. The two young women thought Nadal – who turns 30 this year – was just adorable and they were excited to see him in person.
The Spaniard walked into the interview room shortly after ending a tough match. His dark, wet hair was pulled back. His drained face showed the exertion that had gone into the match.
One of the young women whispered to the other: “Look! His hairline is receding!”
“And he’s got wrinkles!” the other said. “How old is he? He looks old!”
At that point, I’m thinking: Wait, you’re aware that I’m sitting here in front of you, right? I may have wrinkles and thinning hair, but my hearing is still perfect.
Which brings us back to my birthday visit with Jean. (Not her actual name, by the way. I have to comply with HIPPA.)
We talked about old times – how she met her handsome Navy husband, all 6-foot-3 of him, at a club while she was on a date with someone else. She immediately fell in love and decided that she wasn’t going to let this one get away. They got married despite their parents’ objections – she was Protestant, he was Catholic – and raised two kids. So much changed when he died. She really misses him on special days like birthdays. Sometimes she just feels old and worn out.
“I know what you mean,” I said.
She sat upright in her wheelchair and reminded me that I’m more than three decades younger than her, so I have no standing to complain about age.
“You’re a young-un,” she said, in her New England accent. “A spring chicken!”
We both laughed. When it was time to go, I checked to see if she needed help with anything. She was fine. I told her I’d see her again next week. As I headed for the door, she called out.
“Goodbye Mr. Chicken!” she said, giggling.
Mr. Chicken. I kinda like that.