I was chatting with my guitar teacher the other day about yoga, and he was lamenting his lack of flexibility at the tender age of 29. I mentioned that he should get started now, or he'd been in rough shape by the time he was as old as I.
Evidently, that was the final "old" comment that tipped the scales, because he called me on it "Do you mind if I ask...you make comments all the time about being old...how old ARE you?" I told him I was 39, and he commented on how that was not so old, only 10 years older than himself. I told him I was older than I look..."I'm like Yoda...I'm 800 years old." I laughed as I said it, but I meant it. I feel that way often.
We moved on from there, on to actual guitar-related discussion, but the conversation stuck with me. First of all, it held up a mirror to me, pointing out that I probably make far too many age-related remarks to people (and it probably annoys both those older and younger than I). But what I've really been pondering is, why? Why is that a recurring motif with me?
The fact is, I don't feel 39, although I fully admit that having never been 39 before, this may well be what 39 feels like and I just don't know it. I feel so much older. If I had to put a number on it, I would say that widowhood added 10 years to my age, physically and mentally.
People sometimes are surprised when I tell them my age. I guess I look younger than the number (one of the benefits of being fat--it keeps your skin filled out), and I think older than most people expect of a thirtysomething, but since I'm me every day of my life, I know that I look and feel much older than I did, more than the actual years can account for. I was a dyed redhead when A died, having moved beyond the "pluckable grays" in my mid-twenties. When I finally stopped dyeing my hair for good in the year after he died, it was at least twice as gray as the roots had shown before he died, and the grays seem to be multiplying all the time since. And then there is the chronic pain, a problem that flared to crippling proportions within 6 months of A's death and which I'm still dealing with 4 1/2 years later, and may be for the rest of my days. On my best days, I am stiff and sore, and tired because of it. I never imagined there being such a physical response to grief; I knew I would hurt in my heart; I didn't realize the rest of my body would be affected as well, though I've since learned that that's common to the bereaved.
As for the mental aging, widowhood took a lot out of me, primarily patience for foolishness (not that I had much in the first place), and ignorance and naivete due to lack of experience. This leads to a bit of curmudgeonly reverse ageism where I'm pretty quick to dismiss or condescend to those younger than myself. It's a bad, presumptuous, uncompassionate habit, but one I'm not always aware I'm engaging in until the words have left my lips, which indicates to me that it's solidified into a life view to some extent; it's just too ready, too thoughtless, to be otherwise. I feel older than my peers, not only because I've been widowed (although that experience is a large part of it), but also because I've been with my partner twice as long as any of them have been with their own, bought 4 houses, had 2 careers, and have been living the life of an empty-nester for years now. And I've always been an introspective personal problem-solver, and have identified and worked through (or at least made peace with) a lot of my "stuff" when a lot of folks I know seemingly have yet to recognize they may have "stuff." I find myself expressing world-weary sighs and mentally washing my hands of young, inexperienced, or unenlightened hopeless causes on a regular basis.
I have become an old crank, it seems to me. But, to others, I'm still a youngish woman.
People want to argue with me when I comment on my "oldness," especially since so many of my friends are older than I. "You're just a baby!" they say. And while it's true that I am relatively young, it always feels dismissive to me, because I'm not. (Which is probably why the youngsters whose youth I comment on are annoyed, too. Maybe I should start by not calling them "youngsters.") I've lived through a hell of a lot (emphasis on the "hell") in the last several years, and it's taken a toll I can barely articulate. I'm struggling, even here, to string together the words that will describe what all the widows reading this will probably understand implicitly, but I couldn't for the life of me explain to someone who hadn't had similar experiences.
Perhaps the best comparison would be Westley's experience on the rack in the pit of despair in The Princess Bride. Count Rugen puts him on a machine that extracts years of life from its victims; he puts it on the lowest setting, 1 year, and it just about kills Westley. It takes a miracle for him to recover, and even so, though he looks mostly the same from the outside, he is weak. When A died and left me behind, it took 10 years of my life, I swear, or rather, fast-forwarded me 10 years. I feel it, quite literally, in my bones. It took my youth and my playfulness, my strength and my resilience, my innocence, and my patience, my hopefulness and my defenses against a world that is often puzzling, cruel, or wicked, to a degree I'm only now beginning to recognize and seek a remedy for. I have little hope of regaining my innocence; the nature of innocence precludes that. You cannot unring a bell, cannot unsee what you've seen. What I'm left wondering about, and praying for, is whether I can somehow rebuild the others in spite of that.
I often wonder who I would've been if I'd not been widowed at 34. Sometimes I think back, and that woman was enthusiastic about life and certain of her efficacy and a little insecure, despite outward appearances. She was fun, and carefree. Now I'm actually pretty secure in myself, but only situationally enthusiastic, and not certain about much, other than that my efficacy counts for very little in the grand scheme of things. I'm not entirely sure I know how to be fun anymore, and "carefree" has become "couldn't care less." In some ways, there is a settledness about my new mindset, a peace in acceptance...or resignation--maybe it's both--and that's not the worst thing in the world. But it does take a bit of the sparkle off life, in a lot of ways. If I haven't seen it all, I've seen more of it than I wanted to, and it has worn me out.
It occurs to me that perhaps the reason I make so many "old" comments at my own expense, or "young" comments at others', is because on some level, I want people to understand the change that has taken place within me. I want people to understand what life has cost me. I want to be acknowledged as a veteran in this battle from cradle to grave. I, like anyone, want to be seen. And while I cannot explain exactly what widowhood and other difficulties have done to me, to my life, to my relationships, "old," has become a sort of shorthand to describe the end results of the events in life that tend to make us tired and embittered and ready to be done, like some truly old people we've all known. I know life scars us all; I don't think I'm special in that regard. But I only have to live with me, and I'm trying hard to find a way to do that better, rather than bitter.
When I meet octogenerians who are still enjoying themselves and savoring life in general, despite having experienced all the things that drag me down today and more, I find myself envious and eager to know their secret to living with gusto still. Because I feel like a wimp compared to them. By the time you're 80, you've lost so much and so many; maybe more than one spouse; maybe children; friends for sure; you've had health problems. What have they learned that makes them still want to go out and dance through life, even if they need a cane or a walker to do it?
I need to know that. And my ignorance on that count is the one thing that reminds me that I am not truly old. Because if I were, maybe I'd have learned it, too. I'm half their age, and most days I feel indifferent at best (and worst) about throwing in the towel. Clearly, I'm missing something.
I suspect A would be disappointed in me, feeling this way. He had 20 years of life's ups and downs on me, had lost both his parents, many friends, and his marriage. And while he got down sometimes, he generally greeted the day happy to be alive. I loved that about him, and it rubbed off on me. I need that energy of his to keep me from slipping into in cynicism, apathy, and negativity, and I don't have it in anyone else. It's an ugly bit of irony that the man who was so integral to and nurturing of my positivity about life is, through his death, the reason I no longer have it. I'd like to honor him, and who he was, better, and in doing so, appreciate the miracle of being alive better for my own sake. I'm working on it, but the way is not clear to me at all.
What does a person do when she is too old to be young, and too young to be old? Too old to be deluded as to the reality of things, too young to be wise about same?