His bicep still feels like a wall, solid and strong.
His energy and curiosity have long since out-paced that of his peers.
He just spent a month sailing in Greece with a friend.
But, for the first time, during a recent visit, my 85-year-old father finally, suddenly, felt old to me. And, to his clear dismay and surprise, to himself.
We’ve never had a smooth, easy relationship. He’s missed many of my birthdays and we rarely do Christmas together. He made it to both my weddings and walked me down the aisle.
We’ve had arguments so loud and ferocious I debated cutting off all contact with him.
But he’s my only father.
And I am, in many ways — competitive, stubborn, voraciously curious, a world traveler with a host of interests, artistic — very much like him.
A film-maker and director of television documentaries, he rarely hesitated to piss people off, preferably on their dime, a trait I’ve also inherited in my work as a journalist. Gone for months working while I was growing up, he’d bring home the world — literally: a caribou skin rug and elbow length sealskin gloves from the Arctic, Olympic badges from Japan, a woven Afghani rifle case, a hammered metal bowl from Jerusalem.
In the 60s, when I was at boarding school, his gold Jaguar XKE would pull into the parking lot and whisk me away for a day of fun., often a long walk through the countryside.
We’ve since driven through Mexico and Ireland, shared a tent while driving across Canada the summer I was 15 and drove from Montreal to Savannah, admiring the Great Dismal Swamp in the rain. Much of our time has been spent in motion.
We rarely, if ever, discuss feelings. It’s just not something we do.
But it’s sad, frightening, disorienting — inevitable — to suddenly see him tired, limping, sobered and chastened by mortality after a lifetime of tremendous health, good luck and international adventure.
I had dinner recently with my friend G, a fellow writer. As we settled into a local restaurant for dinner — the music way too loud for comfortable conversation — we both kept saying “That music is too loud!”
Getting older is a bitch, kids.
What we really were talking about was how to handle the indignities and annoyances of aging.
We’re not that old, but we’re past 40, and things do start to look a lot different by then; friends have died far too young, parents are starting to become frail or ill and the endless mountain ranges of ambition we always planned to keep scaling are starting to just look exhausting.
“I’m going to be such a bitch when I’m older,” she said calmly. Me, too.
Because you’re running out of time, energy, strength and the endless determination to bounce back — from illness, divorce, a crappy betrayal, a crummy job.
Because, for better and worse, you simply have less stamina, physically and emotionally, for bullshit. If someone is petty or cruel or stupid or deceptive, in the old days I would have fake-smiled and sucked it up. Today? You’re gone!
You don’t have to kiss as many butts as in your gogogogogogogogogo 20s and 30s, when you’re desperate to get into the right college/grad school/jobs/marriage.
What’s going on, I think, is the path-diverging choices that come with growing up. The thirties aren’t wildly different from your twenties, except for the part where the stakes feel so much higher. The carefree feeling of going out every night is replaced with a nagging voice that now reminds you of the repercussions, of what you should really be doing instead, and of the choices that may be slipping away, whether they are career, family, or fun. You are suddenly, irrevocably unable to waste time in the same way without chastising yourself.
By the time you’re in your 40s and beyond, you’ve done much of that, often several times (see: jobs, marriages.)
And we’re learning (resentfully!) that our energy has limits — even as she and I admitted to sitting at our computers for 10 hours a day when we write a major story.
I still, (thank God), can read without needing glasses. I still head off to jazz dance class and kick as high as some of the praying-mantis-thin chicks in their 30s. I plan to be back on the softball field this summer, after a three-year absence due to injury, surgery and recovery.
I’m also finally happy to see that my retirement savings — mine alone, even as a freelancer in a recession — have hit a number that actually makes all those years of scrimping feel worthwhile.I’d so much rather be in Paris/wear Manolos/drive a new car, but that growing number is deeply comforting.
My role model is a woman on our floor, soon to turn 98. She recently fell, off the toilet, cutting her cheek and shoulder so badly she needed stitches. Her live-in nurse, who I see often, said, in awe: “She’s so strong!”
That’s what you need as you age. Strength: of character, of mind, body and spirit. A network of solid, loving friends. As much cash in the bank, and/or income, as you can possibly scrimp, scrape and save — start now, young ‘uns!
Aging also means less patience for whining or negativity. If you’re healthy, solvent and alive you’re way ahead of a lot of others starting their days with an IV in their arm or wondering when to finish making out their will or wincing in pain with every step.
By the time you’ve done a few decades, you start to feel like a grateful survivor, because you are.
The other night, for fun, I decided to Google a former beau, one of the most fun people I ever knew, a journalist-turned lawyer who fought hard for the rights of workers who’d been screwed over by their employers. Instead, to my shock, I found his obituary — dead of cancer at 57. It feels unimaginable.
It might be the worst taboo of all — old age. Not middle age, the final decade(s.)
I moved into an apartment building at 30 where everyone — who knew? — was 20 to 30 years older than I. It’s a nice spot, atop a hill, with no steps or stairs anywhere, perfect for people with mobility issues, (aka canes, walkers, even crutches.)
Since I developed early and bad arthritis in my left hip, I get it!
What I like most are the 80-year-olds here who are so stylish, funny and well-dressed. Marie, on my floor, has bouffant hair, great clothes and a booming laugh you can hear down the hallway. Even heading out to a doctor’s appointment, she looks terrific.
When she told me her age, I laughed — I figured her 20 years younger. This has happened so many times in the elevator when I’ve spoken to white-haired women, (and it’s usually the women who are rocking it out) and found them fun, funny, engaging.
My Dad is 81, blessed with tremendous energy and health, and recently started making a documentary, his former career, working with scientists he introduced himself to. His partner is 74, slim, lovely, smart and has lived a life filled with adventure.
There are days I fear old age and there are days I look at the men and women I know who’ve blasted past the worst marker — 65 (if you make it that far, you’re good for a while, stats show) — and are still, healthy and solvent, enjoying the hell out of their lives.
They have surgery, they take meds, some walk slowly. But they’re in it.
I don’t look to the anorexic 15 year-olds in Vogue for inspiration, not that I ever did.
It’s been the most exhausting and emotionally wrenching week of my life.
This morning my Mom — the woman who’s lived alone in Lima, Bath, Roswell, NM, Gibsons, B.C., Toronto — who’s been from Nauru to Oaxaca — moved into one room, in a nursing home.
The woman who covered the Chicago Eight trial as a radio reporter, who cried on my 11th birthday the morning she served me blueberry pie in bed because Bobby Kennedy had been shot. The woman whose hair color changed almost daily in the 1960s thanks to a fab collection of wigs, and the confidence to pull it (them) off.
Whose collection of mantas, moles and delicate cashmere Indian shawls, collected on her travels, inspired my lifelong love of textiles and my own collection of them.
I joined her for dinner (served at an ungodly 5:00 p.m., with several of her dining room companions asleep at their tables) and kept her company as she ate a bit of beans and corn and pork. She didn’t like the meal or even the china mug her tea was served in.
Then we sat in her room and talked for a few hours. I asked about Edgar, a folk art animal she has owned for as long as I have known her; she bought him in London when we lived there. I showed her some recent winter nature photos I had shot.
And then I had to leave — and she gave me a dazzling smile.
I live in an apartment building that is, frankly, something of an old age home — filled with people in their 70s, 80s and 90s. There are days I weary of gray hair and halting gaits, but I have also learned to appreciate the deep value of role models, especially of older women living, well, alone.
My theme song is this, a rockabilly anthem to feisty female old age, from a 1988 album by Michelle Shocked.
I’m thinking of this because one of our building’s two cool 96-year-olds, one of whom lives on my floor, was taken to the hospital by ambulance yesterday. She’s got brilliant blue eyes, thick white hair, and a spirit so lively and outgoing we all love her. I’m praying for her.
The other, on my floor, is wealthy, a bit of a grande dame. She lives in a three-bedroom apartment with a live-in helper. (Money is a wonderful, necessary adjunct to a decent, solitary [even shared] old age.) She wears fab clothes, keeps a fresh manicure, comes down to the pool, even with a walker.
Most women, statistically, will outlive their husbands or male partners. We have to be ready, in every way, to survive — and thrive — on our own.
But I also treasure Marie, 80, on my floor. She’s still married. She wears an immaculate bouffant pompadour hairdo, dresses with style and had a male stripper for her 80th. I asked her in the elevator one day — she’s OK with this sort of directeness — “How old are you, anyway?” I thought, maybe, late 60s.
I feel too fragile these days because of my aching, injured hip. When I watch these women soldiering along, finding new beaux, slapping on the mascara and nail polish and a smile, heading out for dinner with their girlfriends, I’m glad I don’t live surrounded by 20 or 30-somethings, slick and invulnerable.
These ladies are survivors. I hope to be one, too.