I retired from a deeply satisfying teaching career just before I turned sixty-five, having always thought I would keep teaching well into my seventies. The decision came in the aftermath of my parents’ illnesses and deaths.
The years between stroke and death for both my mother and father seem, with hindsight, to have been a time of accelerated aging for me, not so much in my legs and arms and feet as in my heart and brain. Not so much the aging that reaps wisdom but the aging that topples into vulnerability. The aging that makes it seem too hard to keep up with a challenging job, to keep giving my students the education they deserve. The aging that makes each ache or pain or worry that I would have shrugged off at a younger age feel like inevitable decline, a one-way street.
Whenever I talk about getting older with those who are older than me, I see the same facial expression. I like to describe it as a scowl: a blank stare with a raised eyebrow. Every so often I get the sad droop of a head as it shakes side to side. Sometimes it's even coupled with a smirk, seemingly saying: "Oh, child, you have no idea!"
My awesome friend, Flo, worked as the RN nurse manager of the Spinal Cord Unit at the Veterans Administration hospital for many years. During that time, she married, raised twins and earned a master's degree. Then, in 1990, she came to work at my hospital, and we've been friends ever since.
After fifty-six years of practicing primary internal medicine, I retired in my ninetieth year. The goodbyes and well wishes were only the tip of an iceberg in which my patients and I shared the journey of their illnesses together, and I was honored to serve as a guide in their odyssey.
My mother was forty-nine when she died of primary pulmonary hypertension. She was a non-smoker and a non-drinker, but she had a tremendous amount of stress in her life. After being told she could not have a management job because she was a woman, she sued her employer for discrimination. These were the days of the "women's liberation movement."
My mother won her lawsuit, but she died before it was settled. I blame the stress of the lawsuit on her illness and untimely death.
“So, how much do you love the new knee I gave you?” he asked as he walked into the exam room. I stared at the doctor in disbelief. This was his introduction at my first post-op visit after knee replacement surgery? My husband had been an orthopedic surgeon himself, and I'm quite sure that, in his thirty years of practice, he never said that to a patient.
The light from the stage spilled out over the audience and illuminated the faces of my companions. I was there with my Dad, 94, and his friend of many years Dilys, 93. We were settling in after intermission. As the music started, I could feel each of them sit up a little straighter, alert to the familiar Mozart. I wondered how many times each had heard this symphony. I glanced at the two of them, their faces rapt in full attention. Their eyes gleamed and each of them smiled slightly. Bliss! I felt a rush of happiness to be there with them and relaxed into the music.
Simon and Garfunkel said it best: “How terribly strange to be seventy.” When I turned seventy in 2017, I felt old for the first time in my life. Nothing external changed except for a few more wrinkles and gray hairs; I kept my part-time teaching job, continued to usher at theatres, and kept up my reading marathon. However, internally, I felt mortal; most of the chapters in my life have ended, and only a few chapters and the epilogue remain.
It's recently come to my attention that I am aging.