7.03.2023

happy birthday to me: aging and mortality edition

I have been alive on this planet for 62 years. Somehow, inexplicably, it was June 13, 2023, and I passed birthday number 62. I find this fact stunning. 

I feel incredibly fortunate to be living the life I am. I've worked hard, taken risks, made choices, and had big assists of luck and privilege. I look around and just feel so incredibly grateful. 

I'll admit it's not all great -- but only briefly

I'm not loving the physical changes that come with aging. My health issues began at age 12, and I've lived with more than one chronic condition throughout my adult life. Aging is adding yet more actions to the already-long list of things I must do to keep ticking. It is sometimes frustrating. I sometimes feel like, Oh nooo, not another thing?? This is too much! 

Then after a period of adjustment, I find my footing. Because really, what choice do I have, what choice do any of us have? We can either take care of the condition and maintain our health, or not take care of it, and it will get worse, and we'll suffer physically and mentally. Obsessing and complaining doesn't make it any better. In fact, I think obsessing makes it worse: it would take up more space in my thoughts and my life. So I take a deep breath and suck it up. 

Beyond the physical, being in my 60s just feels so different. My ideas about the future are so different than they were 20 or even 10 years ago. The view ahead now looks bluntly finite. Of course, it always was, but my awareness of that finiteness is in sharper focus. I think of this often now, much more than I ever did before.

Talking about this is generally taboo. It's usually dismissed -- especially by anyone older than me -- with a laugh and a wave: "You're too young to think about that!" But the fact is, I do think about it, and I'm sure many people do, whether they admit it or not. Talking about death doesn't hasten its arrival. (Sorry, superstitious people. Our words don't really affect the universe.) Death is a reality. Perhaps talking about it might help us prepare psychologically, at least on a background level.

Thinking about death seems natural to me. When we're children we wonder about being teenagers, and when we're teens we wonder about being adults. To me, recognizing where I am -- or where I hope I am -- in the arc of my life is not morbid or premature. It just is. 

One and done

In my worldview, this life is the only life we will ever have. I don't believe in any form of immortality, don't believe there are magic words I can say or rituals I can perform to achieve life after life. Aging has given me a greater understanding of why humans invented the beautiful fiction of everlasting life, but I can't generate even a flicker of belief in it. In my view, when we die, our physical bodies go the way of all animal bodies, and indeed of all living things. As Jerry Seinfeld said about the soup, This is the meal, buddy boy. So stock up.

Now, in my 60s, I feel myself coming to terms with the finiteness of my own life. I won't travel to all the places I'd like to see, I won't read all the books I'd like to read. (Not even close!) The future versus present equation -- trying to ensure a somewhat comfortable old age while still living a full life today -- looks very different than it did 20 or even 10 years ago.

I'm not saying this with anxiety or depression or fear. Just stating facts as I see them.

When we're being honest about death, the thing many of us fear most is not that we will die, but how we'll die. There are all kinds of deaths, and some sure as hell appear better than others. I'm so very grateful for activists who have fought for end-of-life autonomy and dignity, such as legal medical assistance in dying. I follow that story in Canada and hope the laws become more expansive. (An excellent documentary on this: How to Die in Oregon.) 

I feel as strongly about end-of-life choices as I do about reproductive choices. Bodily integrity is paramount. And we don't have that in our world, not even close.

So here I am, 62 years old, and contemplating the road ahead. I know all the applicable cliches, as do you. Savor every moment, be grateful for what we have, blah blah blah. I do and I am, more than most people you will ever meet. These are the platitudes I subscribe to. Keep on keepin' on.

9 comments:

Marie Snyder said...

Happy belated birthday! I'm just four years behind you and get that sense of finality. Add after a brush with cancer, then Covid and climate change, and it all seems a bit more final. But we keep on keeping on!!
Cheers!

Amy said...

First of all, happy belated birthday! And second of all, I hear you and I raise you nine years to just about 71. I don't think the reality of impending mortality truly hit me until last year when I turned 70. Now I keep reminding myself---you have ten good years left IF you are lucky. The 80s can be pretty good for lots of people, but I saw drastic changes in my pretty healthy parents once they hit 85 for sure. Travel stopped, medical appointments became a constant, and their circle of friends and social activities shrank with every passing year. As I watch the number of prescriptions I take grow and (like you) the number of underlying conditions and aches and pains multiply, I know that my coming years are not only finite but will be more limiting.

Harvey and I recognized this when we made the huge move last year from an over 55 community (where we felt like we were living in a pre-assisted living phase of our life) to the Cape. It's an insane move for people our age---taking on more work for our home and living further from hospitals and convenient health care, shopping, etc.---but if not now, when? We fully accept that this is at most a 15 year stay and then, if we are lucky, we will have to move again. But for now we are going to enjoy every second of living in this beautiful place.

And like you, I have no belief in an afterlife; although I am very connected to Jewish traditions (and although our rabbi believes in an afterlife contrary to what most modern Jewish thinkers say), I believe that our only "afterlife" is the legacy we've left behind and how we are remembered by what we said, did, and wrote, and, most importantly, how we loved and treated others.

laura k said...

Marie and Amy, thank you both for sharing your thoughts.

Marie, glad you are still with us. Any brush with cancer is scary. Cheers to you!

Amy, huge cheers to you and Harvey for making that move. I knew you did, but I hadn't thought about it in that context. It sure doesn't seem insane from where I'm sitting. It's life-affirming.

laura k said...

And thank you both for the birthday wishes. :)

Amy said...

Many of our friends thought that we were insane! Insane to leave a community where we'd lived for almost 40 years and had many friends to go to a relatively rural place where we knew almost no one. Some were just sad we were leaving, but others definitely thought it was a crazy move. But we have absolutely no regrets.

laura k said...

I'm very happy that you don't think that way! I feel sorry for people who would look at your recent Big Life Change and think of it in negative terms.

Personally I cannot imagine not pursuing a dream because you wouldn't be living near friends, or because you'd be leaving a place where you have roots. Nothing is 100%, there is always some sadness or some downside, but that's just part of life.

Says a person who uprooted herself and went someplace where she didn't know anyone, twice.

Amy said...

You actually were a part of my inspiration to do this. Your descriptions of living near nature and near water were enticing, and the fact that you and Allan were brave enough to start over (again) was inspiring to me. Many of our friends have moved away to other places, but mostly to be closer to their grandchildren or to Florida or Arizona. Those were not appealing or practical options for us. (Despite how much we love our grandchildren, Brooklyn wasn't practical or appealing at this point in our lives.)

The hardest part of this, aside from dealing with a house that needs attention, has been making new friends while holding onto old ones. Not working makes that harder. But I am doing my best to find ways of being involved locally, and although it's a very slow process to go from being at a meeting to creating a friendship, I am not at all unhappy or lonely.

Thanks for being my inspiration and my cheerleader!

laura k said...

Wow. I'm honoured to be any part of that decision! ❤️

I'll reply to the rest by email. šŸ™‚

impudent strumpet said...

Happy (belated) birthday!