Over the past few years, I’ve begun to feel age. I feel it when I turn my left arm sideways to grab something or when I extend it over my over my head (torn rotator cuff), but I decided to live with the discomfort until the pain gets unbearable. I feel it when I set my feet down on the pavement after sitting in a car for an hour or so. After standing, I exhibit an embarrassing arthritic hobble that takes me seven seconds to walk off. I look around and wonder if others my age are thinking about their health—having the same feelings about their bodies. I paste a smile on my face, hoping they don’t notice my slightly hunched position as I attempt to straighten my back into a model-like stance. I lift my head high ignoring the discomfort and pretend I’m balancing a book on top of it—all for show.
Up until sixty, I could have fooled even myself into believing I possessed some kind of immunity to aging. I repeat a simple mantra: My muscles may be weakening and my joints stiffening, but I’m not ill. In fact, most people refer to me as younger than my years. I hit the gym four times a week and work out with twenty-something girls—ballet classes practicing my demi plié, Port de bras, demi pointe, and of course, all of it with attitude. I compete with girls decades younger than myself and I come out shining.
When I work out with weights, it’s the same type of competition——only this time it’s with men and women. If they are climbing Jacob’s ladder, I have to climb longer and harder. If they are playing racquet ball for an hour, I have to keep up the pace. When they are out on the court with a basketball, I grab my tallest girlfriend and join in. A win is celebrated by jumping up and down like a school girl. A loss is felt deeply and expressed freely. After my work outs, I’m never sure if I’m sore because of a particular sport, or if it’s just my advanced age.
When I was thirty, I felt sure that a reward awaited me when I turned sixty—if I made it that far. Having never considered myself a real beauty, I’d be exempt from mourning its loss. But upon aging, looking through photos, and hearing my oldest friends refer to me as being beautiful, I understood that I possessed some beauty, and because I had so little, I couldn’t afford to lose it. So at this period in my life, I realize I care about my looks. I find myself spending more energy trying to compensate for my inadequacies than I used to, amusing myself for hours shopping for clothes, rifling through racks, looking at labels, sliding my fingers along the fabric, determining the quality of each item. I color and condition my long locks. I experiment, in subtle ways, with makeup. I expect those methods don’t do a lot to improve my deficiencies, but they do give me a boost and let people know I’m trying.
But it’s not easy to judge success or failure in aging because the reference class itself is collapsing. There are so many women who have fallen victim to disqualifying conditions; it’s hardly a consolation to congratulate oneself on having escaped the ones I’ve managed to avoid. After sixty, almost every blessing is hinged on a curse that has fallen on someone else. When you count these blessings, it takes the form of reminding yourself, at least I don’t have a serious weight problem, or a bald spot on my head, or at least I don’t have bulging varicose veins or a double chin. These types of comparison don’t have positive attributes. They start with a type of minor gloating and grow rapidly in size. At least I still have my mind. At least I’m not alone.
My fear of death has somewhat diminished, or maybe it’s mixed together with other elements of my subjectivity. I no longer bolt upright in bed at the thought of dying. Perhaps the process of aging is what gets me used to the idea—limbering me up for it. What depresses me these days isn’t the idea of my extinction, but the thought of losing another loved one.