Monday, April 25, 2022

The Privilege of Growing Old

 I'm amazed these days at how readily one memory can spark another with so many criss-crossing connections over the years.

Reading the newspaper list "Daily Birthday" of celebrities, both major and minor, the other day, I noted that Johnny Tillotson turned 84. Even back in the day, Tillotson was a "B-List" teen idol eclipsed by Elvis, the Beatles, etc. But to some die-hard fans, he was the true king.

My friend Marie Traina, who was the president for life of his national fan club, was his greatest die-hard fan. She described herself as a "perpetual teeny bopper" and, indeed, maintained a youthful, enthusiastic attitude all her life -- whether she was singing Johnny's praises or cheering on Northwestern's basketball team or simply being a caring friend.

But there was a tragic twist to her story: Marie never had the privilege of growing old. She was murdered when she was one month shy of her 29th birthday.

Many other dear friends have passed away since, but Marie was cheated out of many more years of life than the rest of us. I've never stopped being sad for her and have never stopped missing her.

Celebrating my 77th birthday today, I feel incredibly blessed with years, life experience and the people who have brought so much joy to my life.

Beyond the predictable aches and pains and medical issues our advanced years can bring, there is so much to celebrate. 

Like what?

Being increasingly comfortable in our own skin. This is a time when we finally make peace with the imperfections of our bodies. When we were young and our bodies closest to perfection, we were, too often, relentlessly critical of ourselves. We thought we were fat when we weren't. We agonized over noses too large or teeth too crooked or hair that refused to conform to a bubble-do.

Too often, we had help from society in our scathing self-assessments. Briefly in my twenties, I pursued an acting career. At 118 pounds and 5'4", I was considered overweight by agents, casting directors and acting coaches. I was even cast in a comic role as the "Fat Dancer" in a musical revival. I hated my body and I wasn't alone. Not long ago, some neighbors and I were comparing photos taken in our twenties. We marveled at how beautiful we all were. But we didn't feel beautiful then. And what a shame we couldn't enjoy our singular beauty -- at any weight or shape or size.

It's easier now to relax and accept what is. There are many days when I actually do feel beautiful. There are many days when I can laugh about wrinkles and bat wings and other unmistakable signs of aging. I worry about and watch my weight only for health reasons. 

And I've come to realize that one's worth is intrinsic and has more to do with character than appearance. Didn't we always know that? But we didn't necessarily feel that level of self-acceptance back in the day. We're more likely to be blessed with that acceptance of ourselves as we mature into older age.

Being thankful for the health we do have. Very few of us have not had our health challenges as we've aged. I grew up from a sickly childhood overshadowed by bulbar polio and disseminated histoplasmosis that left me with severely scarred lungs. But in adulthood, I was blessed with robust good health and strength. I danced for many years. I got into running in my thirties. I've enjoyed gym workouts for decades. But there have been hints of new limitations in the past 20 years. I survived thoracic surgery to remove an esophageal growth and the upper lobe of my right lung in 2003. I survived a heart attack later that same year. And in 2020, a temporarily disabling accident kept me immobilized and in a wheelchair for nearly a year.

How wonderful it feels to have a reprieve: to be mobile again and able to walk, bike, swim and get back to the gym; to wake up feeling healthy and hopeful. I know what it is to lose one's mobility and to nearly lose one's life. I no longer take the ability to walk for granted. I welcome every day that dawns, knowing that everything could change in an instant.

Gaining perspective on what truly matters. With age and experience, we learn to filter out what doesn't really matter and to focus on what does. I used to obsess about professional success and getting ahead, building a platform, selling books. To be honest, I still care more about my continuing career than most of my peers, but I'm not obsessive to the exclusion of everything else.

I was talking today with my friend Chuck, a recently retired physician whom I have known for nearly 50 years. Our lives have been intertwined on several levels over the years -- an ill-fated romance when we were young, a successful professional partnership on four books, one of them a best-seller some years back, and an enduring friendship. I told him how I regretted often putting deadlines and other work priorities ahead of people who mattered to me. He sighed and said "I know...I did too..with too many. When it was the people who really mattered most." And we promised that we would focus more going forward on the loved ones in our lives. Some friends are way ahead on this one: I've happily watched some driven professionals of my youth becoming doting grandparents, insisting that these are the best years ever. 

Treasuring the loved ones of our youth and welcoming new people into our lives.  There is something quite wonderful about having family and friends one has known for years or a lifetime. There is only one adult from my childhood still living: Sister Rita McCormack, a nun who was my brother's first grade teacher and my special friend since I was 8 and she was 23. She turned 92 this past February and, despite some physical frailty, she is the same vibrant spirit who inspired and encouraged me as a child. We have morphed from being teacher and student to being dear friends. She knows how far I've come since then. I know what she has endured and how she has triumphed. 

The same is true of many lifelong friends -- some from grade school, high school and college and many from my first job at 'TEEN Magazine -- with whom I shared youth and a full list of "firsts", the highs and the lows, the life experiences and so much growth over time. 

Being in a marriage of 45 years is a particular pleasure. Bob and I see each other both as the lively 30 year olds we were when we met and as the gentler and wiser people we've become -- a kind of emotional collage that is both comforting and fun. 

Siblings can be immensely comforting, too, the age differences and even the spats of the past blurred by the joy of continuing to be there for each other. 

And it's a joy to welcome new people of all ages into our lives: not only the nieces and nephew who bring such love, hope and vitality but also our younger friends who are fun and supportive and patient and some new older friends who are a source of inspiration in aging.

Living fully in the present. Now that we know, with new clarity, that we have many more years behind us than we have years ahead, we have an opportunity to savor life anew. Whether it's the wind on my face as I ride my bike, the scent of jasmine growing outside my office, sudden affection from an often-aloof cat, the taste of a crisp salad or a juicy peach, the sound of a familiar song bringing happy or even bitter sweet memories, birdsong at twilight, a hug from a child, another chance to be kind... In short, everything that each new day has to offer, is an incredible blessing and a reminder that old age is, indeed, a privilege denied to many and that each day can be a celebration.




6 comments:

  1. Love this post, so full of things we need to remember. However, I admit, I do not remember Johnny Tillotson. I'll have to look him up -- bet he's son youtube.

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  2. Great post, Kathy. I find what you say is true about feeling comfortable in one's own skin. Rather than seeing other woman as possible physical competitors, with better hair, skin, and figures, I and most of my friends view each other as friends and people of great support. It's very liberating. Hope all is well with you. Keep on keepin' on. Love, Georgie.

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  3. I agree with your post entirely. Welcome to the "77 club" of which i am already a member. We're still a pretty active group!

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  4. First of all, belated happy birthday greetings, Kathy. I'm a day (or maybe two) late, but they are nonetheless heartfelt. (And I remember Johnny Tillotson, too.)

    Your words, as always, are eloquent and spot on. I had to laugh at the memory of looking at old photos with friends and marveling on how great you looked! My friend Carol and I did that not long ago and our comment to each other was "We thought we were so fat then." I'd kill to look that way again, for even a week! And appreciating all we have, not sweating the small stuff, and yes, being thankful for the health we do have -- even if it isn't always the best. I move more slowly and not so easily as I once did. But I still move! Lovely indeed, Kathy.

    Here's to a wonderful new year for you, my friend. One with joy.

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  5. Happy Birthday, a day late. You have made a number of positive statements about aging -- truly a gift not everyone gets to experience.

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  6. Happy Birthday! I'm glad there is now so much more positive information out there about aging. Maybe someday we will truly treasure our seniors as treasure troves of wisdom, instead of worshipping youth culture as our society presently does. Hopefully as more of the population "grays," respect will increase.

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