Note: While I continue to work on my series on U.S. Presidents, I wanted to share an essay I wrote for submission to Proximity Magazine (Fall issue dedicated to ‘aging’).
Thoughts of my aging self spark a slideshow inside my head, a time-filtered retrospective of myself, some remembered only because of the photos that hang on my walls, others, favored for the loved ones beside me, sit in the niches of my bookcases eye level to my desk. They are arranged chronologically only in my sixty-six-year-old mind. The plump, jolly one-year old, the sixth grade Halloween pirate, the well-groomed seminarian, the frizzy-haired college student, the young professional in formal wear with a styled white-guy afro, the skinny shirtless runner, the serious race director standing alongside Joe Montana in a 1980s publicity photo, the happy groom with a big mustache and bigger smile, arms wrapped around my love, hundreds of pre-start shots, me with thousands of runners in the background and a whole happy progression of me laughing with kids, from my late thirties to the present.
No matter my age, my grayness or my girth, all the photos with kids make me happy. But when the camera is focused just on me, documenting my expanding waistline in my mid-fifties, age-spots and a double chin appearing in my sixties, I feel the desire to step back in time and block the camera lens. The active reality of aging, remembering the doing, adding up the years of family birthday parties and holidays, even the action shots of me on the job sit well with my aged self. The still-life evidence of aging, the images that document my physical decline are harder to fit into my evolving sense of self-esteem.
And, isn’t it odd that although aging begins at birth, it all seems very natural, even welcome up through and until the middle years of life. Then, the evidence of aging, unless mitigated by thriving work or timeless fun, is coupled to a legacy of decline. The photos themselves are easy to ignore, tuck them away in albums or delete them from file folders and iPhones.
Witnesses are harder to sidestep. Two come to mind, both women, both with no particular agenda but both confronting my aging self. One encounter was over ten years ago, the second very recent.
The first was at a starting line. Not an unusual place for me, this one was 2008 in East Fort Baker, uphill from Horseshoe Cove below the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. On a cliff side three hundred feet above the Bay, it was a great place for runners to watch the sunrise before they took off for the bridge – some years. All we could see looking east that morning were sheets of rain.
At fifty-five I had been at that same starting line for twenty-five years. ‘Across the Bay 12K’ was my creation. While my partner and the other half of our crew set-up the finish and postrace expo at Aquatic Park on Fisherman’s Wharf, I, my loyal staff and forty volunteers took care of the four thousand runners arriving from San Francisco on buses. Rainstorms seemed to match our March race date every other year. Despite our 3:00 AM arrival there was little time to do what needed doing before the 8:00 AM start. The rain made the job tougher but even on mornings aglow with sunshine, it wasn’t easy work. I was proud to keep up with crew members half my age.
My love of running, which got me into race management, had outlasted my knees. I dearly missed the solitary miles, but mostly, I was too busy to think about it. So it was only after the 25th production of my flagship event was long over, when I was able to ruminate, that I fully understood what I saw on that pretty middle-aged face race morning.
Her name was Molly. A college track star and a fast runner her whole life, she had won a number of our early races and we’d become friends doing training runs together. But I hadn’t seen her since she moved to Southern California fifteen years earlier. Having heard that she was out to set new age group records now that she was fifty, I had invited her to run that year’s Across the Bay 12K.
Working with my crew to finish installing the timing mats I looked up and saw her jogging toward me. She was trim and fit and looked almost as youthful as she had the last time I’d seen her, definitely as pretty. I stood up, sucked in my gut and greeted her.
“Glad you could make it, Molly.” I said, reaching for her hand.
“Dave?” she said.
Her look betrayed her. Thirty pounds heavier than the last time she’d seen me, long, dank grey hair hanging over the collar of my rain slicker, my face pinched with worry and focus, I limped a step or two toward her, my knees already done for the day, “Wish we had better weather for you.”
“Thanks for inviting me. I know you’re busy. I just wanted to say hi.” Formal, almost abrupt, she turned away with a final frown that said again, ‘what the hell happened to you?’
‘I work too hard, worry to much, drink too much beer and I can’t run anymore.’ Those were the answers I would like to have given her silent question. Ending with the admission, ‘I’ve gotten old.’
Face-to-face with aging, denial evaporates. Cruel unspoken comparisons – ‘I’m doing a whole lot better than Tommy who had a heart attack at forty – ‘what about Jack he’s dead already’ – become pathetic. The people closest to me, watching me age, aging with me, could not have been as honest as Molly, seemingly ageless herself, skipping fifteen years ahead from the last time she’d seen me. She reflected the truth I’d been trying to avoid.
It’s been ten years since my Molly encounter. I’ve made adjustments, working less, working out more. I feel fit most of the time and take the age spots and arthritis in stride most of the time. But, now that I’ve sold my business I’m faced with, perhaps a deeper aging issue. Who am I now?
Both of my parents died within the last few years. A friend warned me that once your parents are gone, you will experience a much sharper sense of your own mortality. “They are no longer blocking your view of the grave,” he explained.
So, added to the question of who I am now that I’m no longer a runner or a race director, I also have a keener sense of the clock ticking – which led to my second memorable face-off with a woman about my aging self.
After a recent check-up my doctor who had just revealed her own plan to retire soon, asked, “So what do you do with all your time?”
I laughed. She shook her head and I explained, “I can’t imagine the idea of having to ‘fill my days.’ There still isn’t enough time to do everything I want to do. I write. I work out. Lots of family and friends to keep up with. I love to read novels, cook, play my guitar . . .”
“Yeah,” she said, cutting me off, “I guess it’s easier if you have lots of interests outside of work.”
I would have enjoyed talking more about my transition. It wasn’t just about other interests. The key, I found, was self-discipline. My advantage, besides a true desire to write, was that I had not had a boss for thirty-five years. Self-discipline was already a staple of my everyday routine. I hadn’t instantly cloaked myself with the self-image of ‘being a writer’ but I was writing, almost everyday.
But, she seemed more concerned about her imminent exit from medicine than in my psychological well-being at that point, adding, “You’ve gotta do things to keep your mind active.”
“My wife’s a pretty good sparring partner,” I quipped.
“No,” she insisted. “You need to do crossword puzzles and . . . that game, what is it? With the numbers and squares . . .”
“Sudoku,” I supplied, knowing again that she was preaching to herself, quite concerned about what she would ‘do with her time’ and how she would stay sharp once she retired.
She also seemed intent on making sure I knew I was old. As she continued her exam, she insisted on forecasting my body’s inevitable decline.
“Not getting up to pee four times a night yet, you will.”
“Still able to get it up without a pill, we’ll see.”
“Your weight’s OK and your blood pressure isn’t too bad, but let’s see what the blood tests say . . .” She named half-a-dozen age-related conditions that were likely to afflict me somewhere down the road.
Despite her prognosis, I am, at sixty-six, alive, healthy and actively engaged in redefining myself. But, because we are social beings our self-image is, in part, what we see reflected in the eyes of the people around us. So, in addition to a doctor insisting that my body is degenerating, it’s not unusual to catch the reflection in people’s eyes when they learn that you are a ‘retired person.’
As much as I resist the label, insisting on daily work routines, telling old friends as well as strangers that I’m a writer, all, except my wife, seem to need convincing. Friends tell me I need to travel. Strangers want to know how many books I’ve sold.
Ageism is akin to what young adults face when daring to speak of their dreams. Like them I try to turn skepticism into resolve. I am a writer because I write. I do not need your affirmation. Yes, I’m old but, for the time being, I’m still just as alive as you are.
But, who I am, or what I am becoming can easily be drowned out by the ticking of the clock. It may seem that it gets louder the further the countdown has progressed, but having a better view of the grave, does not mean that my death is more imminent than say the hang gliders sailing a thousand feet above the nearby cliffs on the Pacific coast, nor a soldier walking into combat on the other side of the world.
Young people should not spend too much time thinking about death. There’s time for that. Lately, just before I fall asleep at night, nestling with the woman I have loved dearly for more than four decades, I listen to my heart and feel it’s synchronicity, ticking in time with my countdown, and with hers.
I don’t fear my own death. I imagine its time and place – in the Fall, some Fall, distant or near, at the base of an old Eucalyptus tree on a hill in Golden Gate Park, a quiet spot I’ve frequented for the last twenty years. It’s a comforting image. It makes me feel that I’m in control. Perhaps I will be. But I cannot so fluidly imagine the deaths of those close to me. I find myself fighting for breath at each and every glimpse of such loss. The greatest peril of aging is that the longer you live the more death you have to witness, the more funerals you have to attend.
I’m accustomed to shaking my head at recent photos of myself. I know they don’t represent my reality. Only the lifelong array of photos – me as a boy, me at 20, me at 30 and so on – tell the truth. I am still all of those men. They reside within me. I am not just the outer, older me that some people can’t see past.