By Carmelene Melanie Siani
I went out to dinner with friends for my birthday and, soon after we settled down at our table, one of them asked me a question I couldn’t answer.
“What’s it like to be 80?” she queried.
I’d heard that question several times over the previous few days and couldn’t answer it then either. Each time, I dodged. “You don’t wanna’ know.” Or, “It’s not like being 70, that’s for sure.” But then, joking aside, I later asked myself. What was it like to be 80? What was it really like? And, in digging deep, what I found was lots of dichotomies.
Being 80 is like being weak as a kitten in some things and strong as Wonder Woman in others. It’s like being a flirt to the bartender and just another decrepit old lady to the health care worker. It’s like no longer being the hostess that everyone wants to talk to at the family Thanksgiving dinner but being instead the silent, shadowy person the younger generation, now all grown up, has nothing to say to.
It’s like being the one who brings experience and wisdom to others while at the same time also reminds them of the old age they don’t want to see or know anything about. It’s like remembering the thought, “Oh, my god, there are so many good looking tanned, muscular men my age,” and realizing that at 80 most of the men my age are red in the face with big Buddha bellies.
It’s like holding a constant tension between saying goodbye to who you once were and what you once meant to the world at large and hello to what is ultimately to come both at the same time.
It’s like being keenly aware of having to keep up your physical, mental and emotional strength, knowing that your body and mind’s continual deterioration won’t allow you to stop yoga or weightlifting or walking or reading all those books and learning all those new things.
It’s like never seeing role models that you want to emulate in the media but seeing instead old ladies with poufy white hair sitting in wheelchairs while their 50 year old daughters whisper to them about what a good nursing home they’re in. Seeing memes that claim: “Who needs Santa when you have a grandma,” or those same old ladies in ads for heart monitors, Depends or even stool softeners (“They makes things move!”), and only occasionally seeing women of power and influence who are dressed in stylish clothes with stylish hairdos and without having their faces lifted or their skin worked on.
It’s like being lonely with a new kind of loneliness. The kind in which a past, filled with all its angst and all those people who loved you with their guilty love is so far away that it no longer keeps you company and a future that has a road sign in it that you don’t want to see.
Then, finally, in my search for the truest answer to the question, What’s it like to be 80? I went on my usual morning walk and remembered a never forgotten scene.
It had occurred years before when my friend and I were driving along a road in Tucson that gave a full view of the Catalina Mountains. After a short silence in our conversation, my friend raised her hand and, gesturing towards the vista before us, simply said, “Look at those mountains. They’re beautiful. Achingly beautiful.”
So, finally, life had given me an answer to the question, “What’s it like to be 80?”
It’s like being a range of rocky, craggy mountains with all its caves and hidden places, all its beauty, colors and reflected light, all it’s stories and millions of years of history right alongside its never ending future.
Although my birthday has passed, I now know that if anyone were to ask me again, “What’s it like to be 80?” I wouldn’t answer with any of the things I’ve written above. Despite their truth, they don’t reflect the deepest truth. Today, I know the deepest truth with which to answer the question.
“What’s it like to be 80?” Today, I’d simply say, “It’s like being achingly beautiful.”
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Editor: Dana Gornall
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