I turned 65 last week. For many years in my youth, I never thought that day would come. Not that I had some morbid thought that I would die young—nothing like that. I just didn’t think I would be 65 one day. That was the age my maternal grandmother was when she died. I was just eight years old at the time, and I thought she was very, very old.
Even as I grew older, 65 seemed too far away to imagine that I would actually be that age one day. If you got to be 65, it meant that you were retired and were either confined to a rocking chair or a wheel chair. People who were 65 had lived forever, or so it seemed.
But now I am that age, and since I am not retired nor confined to any kind of a chair, I am trying to understand whether the definition of 65 has changed or whether I just never really understood it.
There is an aging process; that much I’m clear on. You can’t do things physically at 65 that you can do at 25 or 45. And you can’t think as quickly or recall as easily at 65 as you can at those earlier ages. So, in those respects, older is not as good as younger.
There’s a reason great ballplayers reach their peaks at around age 30 and are pretty much finished by the time they are 40. There’s a reason great artists produce more prolifically in their youth and more sporadically in their gray years. There’s a reason retirement seems more attractive at 65 than at 55, and will probably seem more attractive still at 75.
Maybe 75 is the new 65. Maybe I’ll really feel old when I’m 75. I certainly don’t now.
I don’t even really feel different, except for the aches and pains that I experience much more frequently after a strenuous workout or after a round of golf. But in my head, my brain, my mind, I still feel, well, younger than 65, more like, maybe 45, even 25, sometimes.
I recall a photo of Leonid Brezhnev, the ancient leader of the USSR in the 1970s. He was old in this photo, certainly looking deep into his 70s. The photo shows him standing with President Richard Nixon at a poolside reception when the actress Jill St. John walks by. At the time, Ms. St. John was, shall we say, an eyeful (Google her, those who aren’t aware of what I’m referring to), and there’s old Brezhnev, googling her in the very same way I did when I saw the photo, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t feeling very old at that moment.
I get that. There’s a part of aging that doesn’t correlate to what we feel. The mind seems eternally young. Or maybe it’s just more content thinking that it’s still young. But things like libido and sexual energy seem just as intense, even if they aren’t experienced nearly as frequently.
“How often do you think about sex,” my wife once asked me. “Constantly,” was my immediate response. Now, if she were to ask me again, I think I’d say “often, but it seems like constantly.” So there’s a difference, I suppose. (Of course, thinking about it and taking it to the next step are two decidedly different things, which is another difference, to be sure.)
But I digress. I was talking about aging, and then that image of Jill St. John popped into my head.
Another memory I have is of a good friend of my Aunt Stella, whose name was also Ed. I was visiting with her once when she got a call from Ed’s wife, Dorothy. At the end of the phone call, my aunt explained to me that Dorothy was concerned because Ed was very angry. “What’s he angry about?” I asked. “Getting old,” she replied. I laughed: the laugh of a naïve 23 year old.
Why would anyone, I wondered, be angry at the thought of getting old? I think I understand that reaction a lot better now, although, happily, I haven’t reached that stage of bitterness. But losing the vitality and energy of youth is certainly not something to be happy about.
But I think Ed was reacting to the awareness of getting old, not to the reality of what it means. There is an innocence of youth that is akin to a feeling of immortality. It’s that feeling that made me think I’d never be 65. It just doesn’t occur to us when we are young that we’ll age just like everyone else, and that those in the wheelchairs with the stooped shoulders and the lost hearing and the dimmed eyesight were once young and vibrant, just like us.
And yet, with all of that said, I still don’t really understand this whole thing about aging. I mean I do understand the physical reality of it, and that it is the way of life that leads, ultimately, to death. But how I’m experiencing it and what it means to be me at the age of 65, those are things I truly don’t understand.
Except that it is absolutely evidence of the ever constant passage of time. “That year went so fast” is just another way of acknowledging how time works. It doesn’t take any breaks; it just keeps on marching on; and it takes us right along with it. We’re born young, and, if we’re lucky, we die old. In between, we live as best we can. That’s the best I can come up with at this exalted age of 65.
Of course, the easy cop-out is to say you’re as young as you feel. In that case, put me down for 45 most of the time, 25 some of the time, and maybe 55 the rest of the time. But my sons both think I act like an old person. In fact, they’ve thought that for years. So maybe I need to change my tune.
Now I can tell them I am an old person; maybe they’ll give me a break.