The shock and awe of growing old(er) - opinion

I’m not planning on retiring any time soon. Tiring, maybe, but not giving up the fight. That’s what life is all about.

 ‘WHEN I’M 64’ singer-songwriter and former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney, now 81, performs in Tel Aviv in 2008. (photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
‘WHEN I’M 64’ singer-songwriter and former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney, now 81, performs in Tel Aviv in 2008.
(photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)

“When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now... will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64? (The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967)

It creeps up on you, slowly, imperceptibly, cunningly, like a pickpocket or an increase in Israeli taxes. And then, all at once, you are stunned by the desperate realization that you are no longer (statistically) young. You have become that person we looked upon years ago not as “old” but ancient. You suddenly remember the popular hippie/yippie slogan (actually coined by Jack Weinberg – a Jew, of course) of the Free Speech Movement: “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Then you think to yourself, ‘Can I even remember when I was 30?” And now the number has impossibly, numbingly, reached the big seven-O (or is it oh-oh?).

Is that really me, staring back in the mirror with a sadistic grin that says, “Didn’t see me coming, did ya?” True, Social Security has been arriving for a while – both in American and Israeli versions – but that’s just a line item in an account that I choose to gloss over. And yes, for some crazy reason, they let us into the movie theater last week for just NIS 10, and on the bus for half price, but I never really felt it until some middle-aged people – yes, I said middle-aged – stood up to give us their seats! Are you kidding me?

When did I become old?

King David famously wrote, “The days of our years are 70; perhaps, with greater fortitude, 80,” but I never thought he meant it literally. I thought this was just his personal opinion, since tradition says he only lived until 70. But now I’m thinking he wasn’t talking only about himself. When the hills you knew start getting steeper, when you fall rather than ease into bed, when you can’t sink a simple 12-foot jump shot on the basketball court, you start to get the feeling that something very weird is going on.

One of the biggest shocks might have come at a gathering of writers for this paper, many of whom – like myself – send in our articles electronically and never actually go into the office. We look at each other in wonderment. Can that really be her or him? The pictures that accompany our columns are, dare I say, not current. Some, I’m guessing, actually date back to bar or bat mitzvahs, and so we pretty much all need name tags for identification. 

 Aging (Illustrative) (credit: PIXABAY)
Aging (Illustrative) (credit: PIXABAY)

Not that I’m complaining. This actually works in my favor. If people could ID me on the street, I’d hear all kinds of complaints, criticism, and corrections. So being incognito definitely has its advantages.

But it can also be a bitter pill to swallow. Speaking of which – oh, never mind. I’m not going to start kvetching about medicines, aches, and pains. Let’s just say that “joints” have taken on a whole new meaning for us seniors (another word I detest!). 

SUDDENLY, WE start to check our doctors’ vacation schedules and look into flights to join them, if need be. We gravitate to the outer circles of dances at Jewish weddings, and we stay indoors if it looks like snow, rain, or excessive wind or sun. We intensely read lists of ingredients and match them up to the experts’ latest dietary do’s and don’ts. 

In short, I am a 28-year-old red-blooded, cocky, mixed-up male, still singing the songs of the ‘60s – all of whose lyrics I perfectly remember (as opposed to my wife’s maiden name) – and wondering what I will do with my life, inescapably trapped within a stubborn body that rebels against me whenever it can.

My mind drifts back to the day my rabbi’s wife passed away, and the rabbi put his arms around me and tearfully said, “Shmuel, when you are young, you think you will live forever and so will the people you love. But then you suddenly find out that it just isn’t so.” 

I think he not only wanted a shoulder to cry on – great rabbis are people, too, – but more than that, he wanted me to know that life has an expiration date, and we must live every day to the fullest of our potential and possibilities.

Some of our greatest heroes and spiritual role models never let age get in their way. Abraham was 75 when he first came to the Land of Israel. He was 100 – and Sarah 90 – when their son, Isaac, was born. Moses was 80 when he confronted Pharaoh and demanded that he let the Children of Israel go free. Rabbi Akiva was 120 when he challenged the Romans and met his fate.

I’m not planning on retiring any time soon. Tiring, maybe, but not giving up the fight. That’s what life is all about, isn’t it? Fighting against complacency and fighting for the causes you believe in. If you stop fighting, you die – in more ways than one. One of my rabbis who taught Talmud for 55 years liked to say, “How do you know if a fish is alive? If it’s swimming upstream, against the current, then you can be sure it’s full of life.”

However, I do think there is one attitudinal change that happens when you get old(er): You not only look back at your own life, with its hills and valleys, but you also look forward, to the future of your family, and you wonder and worry how they will navigate the turbulent waters to come. 

Will they, too, have causes beyond their own personal needs, that stir passion in them and propel them to action? Will they fall prey to the transitory trends of the times – many of which are downright perverse and pathetic – or will they stand tall with a mind of their own, examining issues and making independent choices, no matter how unpopular those may be? Will they maintain pride in their Jewishness and engage in staunch defense of Israel, despite the many voices railing against them? Will they dare to set seemingly unattainable goals, and then amaze themselves when they actually reach them?

I could go on and on, as elderly folks tend to do, but there’s real work to be done and nap time approaches. I’ll just leave you with my wife Susie’s favorite bit of wisdom whenever she contemplates the inexorable advance of time and the advent of old(er) age: “It sure beats the alternative!”