Well, it happened. I did not think it would but it did. I got old. You laugh. Doesn’t everybody, unless they meet their maker early? Yes, I knew it and you knew it, but be honest: you never really thought it would happen either, did you?
Hanging Onto the Years
Oh, we knew the birthdays were coming and going, but they took their own sweet time, lulling us into a false sense of youth. We lay in the sun and heard dire warnings about wrinkles (we were born too long ago to hear about sunscreen and UV rays) and only laughed while pouring on more Coppertone tanning oil. Our oily, wrinkle-free skin was as invincible as our young, energetic bodies.
We knew our parents and grandparents were once young, but there is a deficiency in the youthful brain. The inevitable aging process does not sink in until it literally does sink in, somewhere around the age of 35, with variation depending on marital and parental status. For instance, a single 30-year-old female feels much older than her married counterpart. But if the married 30-year-old is pining for a pregnancy that does not happen, she begins to feel “old,” while the 30-year-old career woman is still tempted to think she has all the time in the world.
Out of six kids in my family, all but one is forty-something. My big brother Mike, hit fifty this year. I will follow next year. Those of you in the sixth or higher decades may laugh: Only fifty? Just you wait, you say. But you see, it’s no longer necessary to tell us that. We know very well what comes next. It’s only those in their teens and twenties that live with a false sense of eternal youth. Looking back, it’s ironic to think of all those years as kids when we could not wait to get one year older. Now, we hang onto the years with all we’ve got. Some of us go kicking and screaming or at least invest in plastic surgery to stave off nature and reality. Exercise and vitamins are other ways to hang onto what we still have and work at aging gracefully.
Old and Young at the Same Time
“Aging gracefully.” What exactly does that mean? Does it mean the spirit of acceptance and joy at whatever age a birth certificate attests to? Or does it mean keeping yourself in shape and not sinking to fuddy-duddy fashion lows? For sure it does not mean wearing way too much orange-tinted foundation and obvious wigs, or for men still wearing Speedo swimsuits and combing long hairs over bald spots.
As an aging baby-boomer, I find myself to be a bit of an oddball. At forty-nine, my oldest son is twenty-three. Other parents of kids that old are slipping into pre-retirement, learning to enjoy empty nests, hanging with others in their state of life or even welcoming grandchildren. Not me. I’ve also got a 4-year-old. There are plenty of women who had children later in life and are enjoying motherhood with a mature, self-assured attitude. In spite of the confidence, they cover their gray because, after all, who wants to stand out at parents’ gatherings for school and sports. Since I started relatively early, (twenty-six) and had seven more until age forty-four, I’m experiencing many stages all at once. It makes me feel old and young all at the same time depending which group of parents I’m with. Most mothers of young adults don’t still go down slides and read Dr. Suess. Likewise, most pre-schoolers don’t visit their big brothers’ apartments. But I digress. It’s getting old that we are talking about. Although scientific studies attest that having children later in life slows the aging process, it never does stop completely and certainly does not reverse itself.
Looking in the mirror is not as pleasurable as it once was. The old us has been replaced by images only vaguely familiar, with graying roots and features at least half an inch lower than we like to recall. And yet we have reached an important stage in life. We will never again be or look young. Even plastic surgery cannot rejuvenate organs. Youth is gone. But wisdom is beginning to creep up.
We can look back at the things that once stressed us and realize we survived. Many of life’s stresses are merely transitory and often worldly. Even the serious tragedies and losses soften with time. Night feedings and diaper changes once overwhelmed. Now, we know better. The teen years and what lies beyond make a few diapers and shrill wake-up calls mere child’s play. If only we knew then what we know now, we would have relaxed more and fretted less. And so, that’s exactly what we can start doing.
The Here and Now
The things of this world are indeed passing. We understand that better. Our skin did wrinkle and our bodies did slow down. As we age, we step closer to the day when our time on this earth will be up. People die every day, from birth on, but as we reach 40, 50, 60…well, you just know the odds begin working against you or for you, depending on your outlook. When we were young, our perspectives were not as clear and aging seemed like something only “older” people did. Today, we know the score.
There’s nothing to be gained with pessimism so our only good alternative is to see the bright side. After all, most of us are old enough to remember watching Pollyanna, so we can do this.
We’ve experienced life and very possibly the wrenching death of someone beloved. Either we learned that money did not buy happiness or we learned we were not meant to have a lot of it so we should be happy with what we do have. We learned that friendship and love are important and should not be taken for granted. We learned that love is always better than hate. Hopefully we learned that even if we never become rich, powerful or famous, we can make a difference in this world, in big ways or small.
We now understand that we do not have to prove anything to the world. In the end, life is between us and God. If we were religious to begin with, it makes more sense than ever at this point. If we ran from religion, we can stop now. It’s too tiring to run anymore and once we let Him, God catches up with us right away. So, our bodies slow but our spirits grow. It is the one part of us that can keep getting stronger; there is no age-induced decline for spirits.
Our wisdom helps us reach out and hang onto the important things. We have learned to be more careful in our relationships. Some have stood the test of time, others have been lost and some are injured. Either we’ve mended the damage because we realize life is short, or we lack peace because we realize the same. Stubbornness and anger can stop us from acting on our wisdom, but it cannot take it away. Wisdom is a gift, but it can haunt us if we try to ignore it.
We tend not to sweat the small stuff as much and handle the big stuff with more grace. Even with age, perfection eludes us. All those things we wanted to improve in ourselves in our twenties still may be on-going. But now we have the advantage of experience to draw on.
Would I like to be twenty or thirty again? No. Who would? Sure I wish I had some “do-overs” on a few things, but who wants to live through it all again? Some of us really just want our faces and bodies back or a guarantee of more time. But there never were any guarantees to begin with, and through the eyes of wisdom we begin to see that clearly. All we have for sure is today, and of course, God. Age gives us the freedom of the here and now. We can’t change the past or control the future, but we can embrace the moment. We always could, but we were just too young and foolish to realize it before.
© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange
Patti Maguire Armstrong is the mother of ten children including two brothers who are AIDS orphans from Kenya. She is a speaker and the author of Catholic Truths for Our Children: A Parent's Guide (Scepter). She is also the managing editor of Ascension Press's Amazing Grace book series and co-author of four of the Amazing Grace books. Her website is RaisingCatholicKids.com.