There are signs and signals of advancing age that everyone shares. Some notice those signs, others, not so much. Some people seem to begin acting old after they pass age forty. Other people are completely surprised by death or declining ability a bit before they reach 100. There are jokes about advancing age. There are life events that signal advancing age. There are physical and mental changes that declare advancing age.
Many of the jokes, especially those on birthday cards, or e-mailed internet forwards, start with the words, “You know you’re getting old when…” Those opening lines are as ubiquitous on old folks’ birthday cards as are the lines that open many a children’s story, “Once upon a time…” They’re lead-in lines. They open the door upon the scene you think you may know or can easily anticipate, but often find humour or entertainment in the surprise that awaits you therein.
Life events happen. When someone relatively young gets married, they know they’re experiencing a “life event,” but one assigns joy and importance to such an event, not necessarily advancing age. Speaking from my own experience, I’d say that most of what happened to me before age 35 was not connected in my mind with advancing age, as such.
When I was age 40, my son was born. I was relatively old to be a new dad. I knew that being a new dad at 40 would present me with certain age-related challenges in trying to keep up with the dads of my son’s friends, but I was still quite robust and decided to regard my advanced-age fatherhood as an opportunity to re-visit youthful activities. I have fond memories of being in a park with my son, Dave. I asked him to hold his little body rigid while I spread one hand across his chest and grabbed both his ankles with my other hand, then lifted him above my head and carefully ran so that he could experience flying like Superman. He loved it! So I played my role as the new dad well, even though I was not also, young. Today, I can only say, “Thank you, Dave! Thank you for never showing the slightest interest in ice-hockey!”
Time marches on. I sometimes wish it wouldn’t. Couldn’t it just mosey along, or shuffle along for awhile? Maybe stop, “Set a spell,” as the familiar refrain goes. No! Strike up the band! Play a rousing John Phillips Sousa aire with brass, drums and cymbals! Use however many trombones, trumpets, coronets, etc. that are required to make it right, because time is determined to move along at a brisk pace, a marching pace to be exact. The music teacher’s instructional rhyme seems apropos: “March, march! Feel the beat! In your hands and in your feet!” Time marches on.
In my 50s I noticed a gradual stiffening of joints, such that unfolding myself from a car after driving for a few hours became a slow, semi-painful process – a groaning experience. I was lucky not to be one of those men who lose all or most of their hair, nor has my hair gone gray, though my beard is almost all gray. But my joints regularly gave my age away, despite my relatively youthful appearance.
Just after I turned 60, I was told of some other, less visible stiffening that was going on inside my body. One’s arteries and blood vessels also stiffen as they become lined with arterial plaque. Once, I took a sharp blow to the chest in a skiing fall. The fall didn’t injure me, but it did knock loose a bit of arterial plaque, around which clotting developed and the mass failed to negotiate the narrow passages of the heart’s own tiny arteries, got stuck and blocked blood flow. Muscles don’t work without blood flow, though my heart was a game loser in its battle to do the right thing. It just kept squeezing through enough blood to keep me conscious and able to report my condition. So, though I was feeling stiff that night from many hours on my back in two different hospitals, I didn’t become ‘a stiff’ myself.
Now, as age 70 is within my sights, I notice other things. Today I went to the bank. I was there quite early in the morning. The parking lot was empty. I parked a short way away from the bank, splitting the difference in distance between the bank and the grocery store that I also had to go to. From this approach to the bank, I could either walk all the way around a set of railings or I could scale the 20″ concrete riser and walk across the empty drive-thru lane. Synapses fired and brain switches fell into place opening gateways to a memory of a past encounter with this riser. In that which still passes for a brain in my head, I made a good, quick decision. “Yes, go up the riser. My legs are still good for going up a 20″ step. But don’t take it going down. Walk around instead.”
The last time I went both up and down. When I was coming down, the older part of me wanted the step down to somehow, magically be only 16″ or maybe 18 inches. When my legs and balance felt the full impact of a 20″ drop, I handled it, but my old heart went thumpa-thumpa too, because those last two inches were foolishly unexpected and my knees and legs had to absorb a sudden extra blast of pressure, my balance tested. Hmmm. Old.
Later in the day, I watched as neighbour after neighbour shuffled along in their agonizingly slow, stiffened, hunched postures, several now with walkers and canes. I’m not yet hunched over, and I hope I never shall be, but then I also hoped foolishly that I might never get old either. See where that got me?
Strike up the band! The simple arithmetic of old age plays a simple tune to an unrelentingly regular beat. When one is 20 and one considers life-span expectancy, the concern seems irrelevant. As one approaches and perhaps passes average life-span expectancy, the arithmetic becomes simpler and simpler, as single digits are always easier to add or subtract than double digits. How’s that for dark consideration?
Maybe this is why some older people gain reputations for great wisdom. Encompassing expressions that seem simple often contain great wisdom for those capable of understanding the fullness of the expression. Consider the simplicity of Einstein’s E=MC2. Three letters, one number, one operator. Yet it is an expression of the General Theory of Relativity. It was Einstein’s way of saying, “Here’s what makes things work. It relates to everything that makes or requires energy.” Among other things, this expression helped physicists understand how to design devices for extracting as much energy as possible from a given substance (mass). Simple, yet profound.
But funny things can happen with simplicity. The value of simplicity depends as much upon the mindset of the recipient of the message as it does upon the content of the message itself. The movie, “Being There” with Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine addresses that very issue splendidly as a truly simple-minded gardener, barely able to converse, becomes the darling savant of some rich and powerful people who find fulfilment in misinterpreting and applying many of the gardener’s brief, simple utterances.
Older life does become simple in some ways. When one is young, life is about striving to get ahead, to earn money, to spend some money wisely and to save some for later. Office politics, family relationships, love, social interaction all weave a complex web of life. Now, life is about close relationships, sleeping well, eating well, (but not too much), remembering and getting to a few appointments, breathing, exercising, trying not to lose touch with how things work in this world. “And that’s the way it is,” as Walter Cronkite was fond of saying at the end of his newscast. Simple.