My friend Rin has Jewish parents who never seem to age. In their late 60s, they look like a happy, grey-haired couple from a life-insurance advertisement.
Both healthy, active and as capable as ever, they glow with pride at the achievements of their children and grandchildren. She fills her daughter’s freezer with tasty Jewish treats when she comes into town, delivering kind words of praise and admiration to their grandchildren. They work, travel, lead active social lives and never cause public embarrassment or inconvenience. I think of them as the Golden Couple and find myself wishing fervently that my husband and I will land in our 60s with as healthy a glow. By which I mean as little deterioration.
Around us, other role models in a similar age demographic aren’t as encouraging. Losing a spouse will do that to you, I suspect, particularly if the loss followed a long, soul-destroying illness. No matter how successful your children are, or how adorable the grandkids, life looks a lot different after a loss of that magnitude. Bury the love of your life and it’s easy to give in to cynicism, to relinquish hopes for future happiness and to hole yourself up in a tangle of loneliness, sadness, anger and frustration, a circle of negativity that can be difficult to escape.
For others, it’s the body that fails and the mind that remains strong. My cousin Chaim has been in and out of hospital the past few years, the condition of his 70-something body gradually creaking under the strain of age. Gone are his days of gallivanting across the globe. These days, his time is spent examining the changing light as sunshine sweeps his room, and delving deep into memory back to a time when he was young, politically active and bursting with energy. He writes poetic e-mails about his longing to see friends and family instead of being confined and restricted by a doggedly unco-operative body. His desire is so strong and so tinged with sadness, it’s almost tangible.
I know beauty and grace can be found in the process of aging, but you have to look hard, particularly in my family tree, where a scant few lived to see their 65th birthdays.
Every now and then the grim reality of what it means to age punches me hard in the stomach. It reminds me that despite golden highlights carefully placed to hide my grey hair, and despite compliments from others about a still-youthful appearance, I’m walking the same treadmill to old age, too.
One recent punch that stands out prominently was a back injury that left my posture hopelessly skew and my body aching so badly I begged my doctor for codeine to stifle the pain. Those 14 days of backache felt like 14 years, and as the minutes ticked by, I kept wondering “what if.” What if the skew posture was my new, permanent reality? What if the pain never subsided and codeine tablets were my only relief? Two weeks later, all had healed and my embarrassing posture had corrected itself. But for a short time, old age felt remarkably close and incredibly unwelcome.
As the years pass, the Golden Couple are my inspiration, their health and energy a reminder that gradual deterioration is not inevitable and that there are some among us who will outwit its clasp. Genetics are against me, so I’m hoping that Mother Luck will side with me on this one.