“Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly? How terribly strange to be 70.”
— Simon & Garfunkel, “Old Friends”
An awful mistake has been made. This month, I will turn 70 years old. This astonishes me. It can't be true.
But it is. There's mounting evidence. I used to be 6 feet tall. Now I'm 5-foot-11. My once flat stomach has a weird soccer ball-like inflation to it. A missed bottom step causes an ankle crack, not a mere sprain. Blood tests reveal more “abnormals” and “highs.” Health is the dominant topic of conversation among friends: How many pills do you take? How's your prostate? Did you get the shingles shot? So sad about so-and-so's passing. We used to strive to make a living; the job now is to stay living.
Suddenly I'm a sentimental mess. Tears well up every time I hear Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” or watch “Cinema Paradiso.” Toward the end of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” when Atticus Finch says to his daughter "Miss Jean Louise, Mr. Arthur Radley," I lose it in sync with the rising violins. The same when Ray Kinsella asks his dad in Field of Dreams "to have a catch." (I remember a film critic calling the movie Field of Corn; the man had no soul.) Science says aging causes hormonal changes that affect emotions. I think it also brings a greater appreciation of the preciousness of life, its beauty, its fragility, its wonder. Oh, and aren't our grandkids the cutest things you've ever seen?
At this age, mortality is a part of everyday thoughts. Why are we here? What happens after death? Are we all just grains of sand in a universal desert? I envy people whose strong religious faith tells them that not only is there an afterlife but it will be glorious. I have my doubts. On the other hand, human beings must be more than random collisions of atoms, right? I tend to side with the existentialists who say that life’s meaning is what we make of it on earth — but it would still be great if there’s a merciful God up there.
The sense that we're all hanging on by a thread is magnified and personalized with age. What does that new pain or that latest act of forgetfulness mean? Are we overspending our savings? Is it time to look at senior housing? How will I cope if my wife goes before I do?
On top of anxiety is conflict. The knowledge that technology saves time and effort competes with routine and custom. (I use a smart phone, but it's a Galaxy 5; and I still pay bills by check.) The relief of freedom of time and freedom from responsibility does battle with the urge to be productive. The body yields more clues about what's good for you (kale) and bad (another bourbon on the rocks). But as Woody Allen said, "You can live to be a hundred if you give up all things that make you want to live to be a hundred."
The goal of a lot of boomers was to change the world or at least their part of it. For me as time went on, it was simply to be useful. I saw progress in a 38-year career in public mental health. Community programs today serve over 200,000 Marylanders. People who used to be condemned to back wards of institutions now live on their own, have jobs, pay taxes. Yet too many with mental illnesses and addictions still live on the streets, are in jail, or die too early. Stigma persists. Was I useful enough?
In spite of the state of things today, I do believe the future for those grandchildren will be fine. As Dr. King said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Those of us well into geezerhood can still contribute. Former President Jimmy Carter is building houses for Habitat for Humanity at age 95. Jane Goodall is continuing her work with wild chimpanzees at age 85. A 75-year-old friend has made four trips to Ethiopia to build playgrounds. (I'm not nearly that noble, but I do pick up trash in the neighborhood.)
Seventy is indeed strange, but health scares and a closer date with death aside, it's hardly the end. There are more places to see, votes to cast, movies to cry over and loved ones to hug. Bring on eighty.