I’m colliding into the age of 70. It has more nobility than 69, but still. . . .
A while ago, I saw a perky ad for “seniors” that announced, “You’re not getting older, you’re getting better!” And I immediately thought, bullshit.
My skeletal system hates me. I’m always wearing at least one big, black Velcro brace somewhere on my body. And lately, I’ve had to use a walker (my father’s walker), due to a careless fall.
But please don’t send me a sympathy card, or a birthday card! Have you looked at the cards for older people? They’re meant to be funny, but they’re full of images of sagging breasts, toothless grins, and poor grooming and premature senility. Some are more “sensitive,” with a watercolor message urging you to look back on your life in all its nostalgic perfection. These cards are either cheap or infantilizing.
And it’s not just cards. People say stupid things like, “Oh, bless your heart” or “Aren’t you cute” when referring to us old people. There are segments of morning TV shows in which they trot out some woman who just turned 103 and is slumped in a wheelchair, with one of those big, droopy corsages pinned to her blouse. Usually, some idiot has put a child’s birthday hat on her head. If I turn 103 and someone dares put that hat on me, I’m taking a contract out on myself.
But as my body becomes more vulnerable, my spirit becomes fiercer. I’ve realized that half the ideas and pronouncements inflicted on us are nonsense. Success, big bucks, and tight-ass-ness are celebrated, while the big questions—like what it means to reach for forgiveness and gratitude—are too often ignored.
I’ve finally developed guts that allow me to challenge anything, from politics to fashion trends to well-worn family patterns. Even when I have so much wrong with me, I’ve lost my fear, and subsequently, my caution. I have Dirty Harry moments, in which “Make my day!” is my crie de coeur. Some would call it cranky. I call it gutsy.
Recently, I was walking home from the store with my old-lady shopping cart on wheels and passed a pack of teenagers hanging out on their skateboards and vaping. One of them called out, “Hey lady, do you have any money?”
“No!” I yelled back.
“Good,” another laughed, “because we’d have had to take your fat, old ass out.”
Let’s be clear. I can call myself fat and old, but God forbid anyone else tries it.
I wheeled around and marched my old lady shopping cart right up to them. “Go fuck yourselves, you little miscreants!” I hissed. I like to throw a vocabulary lesson in with my insults.
They quieted and crept away.
I despise the romanticization of aging because it’s often a way to marginalize and disrespect us. It’s romanticized in faux solicitude, like when the doctor’s assistant asked, me “Can you get up on the table, dear?” followed by “Aren’t you sweet!” when I did. The sentimental concept of “riding into the sunset” doesn’t fit many elders who “limp” into the sunset, thanks to often overlooked poverty, stingy healthcare, and increased isolation. The invitation of “Grow old with me, the best is yet to be” was not uttered by a guy overburdened with the care of a wife with Alzheimer’s.
Getting old is hard. We’re relegated to the category marked “irrelevant.” But we can be just the opposite. Deliberate is not the same as slow. Wisdom is not the same as strings of aphorisms. Matriarch elephants carry the memory of the herd. Hunters will take them out first because without their consolidated wisdom, the herd loses its cohesion and becomes vulnerable.
My compatriots and I are matriarchs and patriarchs. We are not dear or precious. We are formidable. We may have lost our shine in the technology of our time, but our wisdom is here, waiting to be shared with, or even inflicted upon, people who are living in a depersonalized world.
Older people know life’s almost insurmountable challenges, and they know how to prevail. They know where they came from, recognize life’s joys, and over time, figure out how to hold them. They know loss and how to live with it as a companion, not an enemy.
So, on this 70th birthday, as I emit a low groan, bending over to blow out my candles, my wish is that I may step into the full power of my years. Like the majestic elephant matriarchs, I want to lead my herd with calm certainty and nurturance. And even if I’m a bit lumbering, I resolve to live my life in long strides of strength, courage, and, above all, grace.
ILLUSTRATION © ILLUSTRATION SOURCE/KAADAA
Martha Manning, PhD, is a writer and clinical psychologist who has written five books, including Undercurrent: A Life Beneath the Surface. She has published frequently in the Networker as well as other magazines.