Six years ago next month, my father celebrated his ninetieth birthday. He was still mentally vigorous at the time. Indeed, he was still practicing medicine in his own old-fashioned way. (His patients loved him and begged him not to retire, which he did six months later.) He died the following year at the age of 91, possibly a victim of the loss of purpose that retirement sometimes brings to those much younger.
Last week, my mother celebrated her ninetieth birthday, and we had a little party of family and close friends. She is also mentally vigorous, although she did officially retire from her position as a medical office administrator about a decade ago. In the years since, she has read scores of books, watched hundreds of old movies and enjoyed the affection of her four children and five grandchildren. She will become a great grandmother next month.
When I reached my sixty-fifth birthday last month, I pondered the significance of achieving that milestone with a mixture of confusion and acceptance. Witnessing my mother’s birthday celebration brought out different feelings and, perhaps, a different perception.
A highlight of the party was the video that my older son had prepared. He had poured over thousands of photos that spanned my mother’s entire life, finally choosing several hundred to create the montage to which he added a musical score. It was a real tear-jerker, all the more so for those of us who knew the story it told.
In it we saw my mother as an infant in her mother’s arms and as a toddler seated with her parents and brother. There were photos showing her as a young school girl and then a few of her as a fetching teenager.
In later shots, she could easily have passed for a movie star or a fashion model, so strikingly beautiful was she in the years of her young adulthood.
And then there were the family shots of her and my dad with the four of us, their progeny: me, my brother and my two sisters, born in that order, all two or three years apart. My parents practiced planned-parenthood before it was fashionable.
On into her forties, as her children successively left home for college, my mother passed almost imperceptibly into middle age. The photos betray only the most nuanced signs of aging, but they also reflect the burdens that life had thrown her way: squabbles with her husband over money and control, a health scare, a mid-life crisis, two of her children in failed marriages, another (me) in a mid-life crisis of his own.
She emerged from those years—“emerged” isn’t the right word—she evolved over the span of those years—into a more fully developed individual. Always an intellectual, she went back to college after turning 50, finally completing the requirements for the bachelor’s degree she had started at 16 (only to put it on hold when, at 18, she married the young med student who would be my father).
As soon as she received that degree, she began to pursue another, this one a Master’s in medical office management. She completed her work on that one at the age of 55 and thereupon embarked on the career that she maintained for a quarter of a century.
That twenty-five year span came when many people have either retired or are wishing they had. But she kept working, enjoying the challenge and the sense of fulfillment it gave her.
But at some point, she had become old. The svelte model’s figure that she maintained well into her sixties finally gave way to the more matronly look of a seventy-something. The athletic dexterity and buoyant energy that had kept her youthful even when arthritis and other musculoskeletal issues arose finally slowed her down. At 80, she still looked ten years younger, but she was now old.
And over the last decade, the aging process has become more pronounced. A hip now needs replacement, and whether to risk the surgery and the subsequent period of recovery or endure the pain and loss of mobility is the principal cloud on her otherwise cheery disposition. She reads mystery novels and historical fiction (sprinkled with returns to the classics—Jane Austen in particular) and watches old movies on cable channels that specialize in them.
She reads her New York Times every day and wonders how the Republicans can be so stupid, proudly displaying the “Vote Democrat” stamps that herald the party she once despised as socialistic. She remains vibrant, if less passionate, involved, if less committed.
Her life is an accomplishment, as all lives are. But hers has the added benefit of longevity, for which she was congratulated by those at her party as if the mere fact of surviving for ninety years is an accomplishment in and of itself.
And, of course, it is. Whether it be by luck or by hard work or by some combination of the two, the mere fact of surviving is an accomplishment. And to survive and to be able to appreciate your survival is an even greater accomplishment, again, whether that ability to appreciate is a matter of luck or hard work or some combination of the two.
And, most certainly, to survive, to be able to appreciate your survival and to have lived a full, rich and rewarding life, is perhaps the greatest accomplishment we can have (whether the reward of such an existence is a matter of luck, hard work or some combination of the two).
My mother has had such a life. My father did, too. They lived day by day as we all do, and they did the best they could with the cards they were dealt, as most of us do. And in the end, they mattered, as some of us hope we might.
Turning sixty-five was a relatively big deal. I was mildly impressed with my attainment of that age. But seeing my parents turn 90 was a real eye-opener. I’d like to live that long, but more than that, I’d really like to feel the life I lived was as full, and rich and rewarding as theirs.