When I was in my mid-thirties, my mother fell in love and got married. She and her husband enjoyed an extraordinary decade-long romance before he became ill and died. Seeing this decade-longer caused a tectonic shift in my thinking about old age. Everything moved and grumbled; cracks appeared in the structures of this assumption that had been standing since my adolescence.
For young people old age remains an era of life like the blank spaces on Medieval maps: here there be dragons. Old people don’t like talking about the ‘declining years’, stigmatized as disease and senility, the long painful decline into the ruinous ash-end of existence. Apart from the occasional pithy “It’s not for sissies,” few observations leak out into the general population. No one knows what goes on there and no one wants to; it remains secret by mutual consent.
Obviously, the very end is tough, fraught with a failing body and a faltering mind, but there is another era between what one might call ‘late middle age’ and the final losing bout with mortality that remains mysterious.
That mystery, that enchanted secret realm of our lives, like a open glade in a dense forest, thrives and maintains its magic precisely because no one seeks it out. This sacred place can never become a paved over sub-division because no one ever looks for it, in fact they avoid it, and each person who actually arrives there discovers it by accident.
Now in my sixties, I remember walking through the Cape Cod Mall a few years ago (I was in my early fifties at the time) and a group of teen-aged girls approached me, talking on their cell-phones, texting their friends, talking and laughing. They must have felt some atavistic awareness of a tall masculine creature approaching. They looked up expectantly, saw the actual middle-aged man in front of them – and flinched. A couple of them just looked away, as they might reflexively turn from the sight of a cripple or an amputee; the others let the recoil show on their faces – as if they’d just smelled something awful, a whiff of sewer gas or sour milk.
Of course, I found it upsetting at first, feeling my age No one was interested in me anymore. There’s a tremendous freedom in that, an almost giddy sense of liberation. Of course, it stings if you want to be seen, if you need to be young if you can’t accept the reality of your accumulated years and experience. But if you can truly accept who and what and where you are, the possibilities open up to the horizon.