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I am 57 years old and the youngest of my siblings. Twenty-one years separate me from my eldest sister: a generation. Nor do I have any children or grandchildren to remind me that Iím getting older. I am an art teacher but I teach primary children, so the children never get to be more than 11 or 12 before they move on to the senior school and I get a new cohort of Prep girls to replenish the oneís moving up from below. I have friends that span the full spectrum of ages. Consequently, my understanding of age is fluid.
My relationship with and understanding of age has been a mixed one over the years. I remember as a child thinking that adults were some kind of super race. I knew in some vague way that someday in the far distant future I would become one. I can remember being told about all the things I would be able to do when I grew up or when I became a man but I guess back then such things were hard to understand or even imagine in any meaningful way. If anything, I used to find the idea a bit scary.
As a teenager, I came to resent those adults who wielded power over me while at the same time fixating on those whom I thought had something to offer. As I transitioned from my teen years to early adulthood I developed a mistrust of older men, especially gay men whom I felt were often trying to take advantage of me. I felt much safer with older women, though again, I was wary of those who I thought might misread my sense of appreciation as sexual interest. In retrospect, what I was really looking for was a sense of personal confirmation.
There was a time when I couldnít imagine being thirty. Then there was a time when the idea of being forty was really daunting, although by the time I got there it was a total non-issue. Forty to fifty wasnít such an imaginative leap and these days my sixties are but a breath away. Imagining my seventies and beyond is no great effort given that Iím far closer to them than I am to my twenties and thirties. As for death, I have certainly given it some thought but oddly enough, the older I get the less is scares me.
Age is relative. To anyone significantly older than yourself, you seem young. To anyone significantly younger than yourself, you seem old. Then there is the narrow band of people who are within three or four years of you by age amongst whom it is possible to talk about the experience of getting older without being patronised by protestations that youíre not that old yet or, conversely, that youíre not that old yet! The fact of the matter is, Iím enjoying getting older. Sure, it has its downside but so does everything else in life. That said, Iím enjoying the ride.
Mum was a couple of months shy of 97 when she died, although in any real sense of the word, she had vanished long before then. By the time of her death she was a mere shell; a dazed and confused child who no longer recognised the world around her or the people in it, trapped inside a body that was long past its use by date.
I intend to live longer than Mum and I intend to do so whilst keeping some semblance of sanity and physical mobility. Whether I succeed in doing so is yet to be determined.
No one wants to get old but itís not like we have a choice. Therefore, we have to find some way to come to terms with it; embrace it even. For many it is the fear of death that gets in the way of any kind of appreciation of the process. Staring mortality in the face is daunting. For the religious, such fear might be dampened somewhat, although Iím not always convinced that it is. For others, itís the coming to grips with simply not existing that does the head in. For me though, aging and death are different things.
Not everyone who dies is old. I know a lot of dead people and not all of them were old when they died. Some were very young. Some were a little older. Some were older still. At 57 Iím already mindful of the fact that Iíve had many more years on the planet than some people Iíve known. That makes me pretty lucky. Dad died when he was 67. Iím only ten years away from that. Less than ten years, actually. No doubt Iíll have a little flutter as I pass that particular milestone; if I pass that particular milestone.
For a long time now Iíve contemplated the idea of doing volunteer work with Very Special Kids, an organisation that works with dying children and their families. I was recently talking to a friend who is very involved with the organisation who explained to me that, unlike many, she has the capacity to go beyond the sadness and grief and simply be there for the kids. She provides art therapy and experiences for dying children and their families. Itís something I feel I could do. I believe that I too have that capacity. It almost feels like itís a calling.
Iíve always been able to imagine myself when Iím very old. When I do, I still have all my wits about me. Iím still able to interact with the world.
If thereís one thing Iíve learnt in life itís that there are no guarantees but, just as significantly, if you donít set your sights high you wonít achieve anything near what might be possible. With that in mind I tend to view the future as still very much alive; very much an open possibility. Thereís so much more I want to be doing; so much more I want to achieve.
I recently read an article about a man who, at the age of 105, set a world record earlier this year by completing 92 laps around the velodrome at Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, near Paris. I love stories like this. It demonstrates that such things are possible. Itís not uncommon to hear about people living until they are 100; apparently, itís becoming less uncommon with each passing year. But to reach 105 and have both your mind and your body intact and fully functioning Ė thatís something to celebrate. Whatís even more powerful was the absolute look of joy on his face after the event.
Portuguese film maker Manoel de Oliveira was 101 years old when his latest film, The Strange Case of Angelicaí, was selected for the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. It was not the last film that he made. I remember reading an interview with him when he was approaching his 100th birthday. Most of the interview was about film making but it inevitably came around to his age. When asked about the implications of being a film maker at such an advanced age, he dryly replied that the only problem he experienced was securing the necessary financial insurance to underwrite his projects.
As I get older Iím not sure how Iíll mange the prejudicial assumptions people have about aging and the aged. I like to think that, as an artist, Iíll be able to offset some of these assumptions by virtue of the work I create. I also often wonder about the nature of friendship as we age. One of the grim realities of living to a fine old age is the fact that many people assume youíre somehow diminished and/or lesser than. Another is the inevitable loss of many friends along the way whose health has not held up so well.
I often forget how old I am. I remember Mum used to say she felt like a young woman until she looked into the mirror and saw an old woman staring back at her. She was still threatening to do cartwheels at 75, though mercifully she never followed through. There are times when I look in the mirror and Iím pleased with what I see, especially with my glasses off. For someone approaching 60 I feel Iím not doing too badly at all. Then there are times when I see the old man emerging and gradually working his way out.
As a kid, the idea that my parents had once been children themselves was an abstract notion at best. They were well into their forties by the time I came along, so the age gap required a determined leap of imagination. To complicate matters, they were both born prior to the first World War, so making the connection between the Edwardian-styled children in the old black and white photos and the grown-up people theyíd become was difficult. Iím not sure that I even truly managed to do it while I was young. Aging can be a challenging concept for kids.
The kids I teach never believe me when I tell them how old I am. They all seem to think Iím 20 years younger. When I was a kid, all adults seemed like they were a hundred years old. Well, maybe not a hundred but much, much older than me. They seemed like another race of people. The idea that I would one day grow up to be a grownup was a strange thing to grapple with. It also seemed to be such a long way off into the future and at that age the future itself was pretty unimaginable.
Death and taxes. Enough said. Itís arguably the oldest truism in the world. The history of human thought, religion and culture has been predicated on the knowledge that we die. Ah well, itís not like we can do anything about it. The funny thing is, with so much collective angst about what happens when we die, people rarely give any thought to where we were before we were born. Thereís no anxiety about all those lost years prior to our arrival on the planet or consideration to who weíd now be with all those additional years of life and experience.
I donít subscribe to any particular religious doctrine. The whole idea of the human brain being able to fathom out whatís really going on in the never-ending whatever-it-is is, to my mind, a bit like a mosquito trying to get its head around quantum physics. I just donít believe we have the physical and, by extension, the intellectual capacity to do so. Cosmically speaking, our moment of consciousness is barely measurable, if at all, and I hardly think the question of whether life goes on after we die is of any consequence at all in the greater scheme of things.
Many of the children I teach will live to see the twenty-second century. My grandparents, none of whom I ever met, were born in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Everyone who was on the planet when they were children died long ago. Most of the people currently alive will themselves be dead when the children I teach reach the twenty-second century, including me. I often have this sense of one generation passing the baton on to the next. Itís one of the joys of working with young people. They are the future, and where thereís life, thereís hope.
It occurred to me a little while ago that we might all be space travellers. Given the never-ending vastness of the universe, perhaps we are all immortals whose only means of travelling across such vastness is to project our consciousness across the void, thus avoiding the need to transport a physical body, and entering the life cycle of a particular planet for a prescribed period of time to find out as much as we can about where we find ourselves, returning back again when the physical body deteriorates and stops working. Who knows, maybe weíre all cosmic scientists and explorers.
When I was a lot younger I could never quite understand how people could become muddled about what happened to them in what particular year. When the number of years you can call actively recall is relatively small itís easy to believe youíll always be able to remember them as clearly as you do then. These days I sometimes have to stop and think about which decade Iím referring to, let alone which year. Life is full of change. Itís also full of repetition. And somewhere between repetition and change, specific dates and memories can sometimes fall between the cracks.
Mumís sister, my Aunt Dorothy, died yesterday. She was 100 years old. The last time I spoke to her she said she was ready to go. She was completely compos mentis right to the end. She could tell you whoíd won the tennis, what the latest news was and much more besides. Her mind was completely intact. Her body on the other hand was not. She was bored. She was almost blind, unable to read or watch television and completely dependent upon others. Her quality of life was gone. But sheíd had a good life. For that, she was grateful.
Although I never knew my grandparents, I can well appreciate the bond that can form between the very young and the very old. The children I teach often tell me about what theyíve been up to with their grandparents and the school where I teach has an annual grandparentsí day. Actually, itís referred to as Grandparents and Special Persons Day because of course, just like myself and for whatever reason, not every child is fortunate enough to have grandparents. That said, thereís something quite delightful about watching the children and their grandparents (some my own age!) share the day together.
I think one of the secrets to having a healthy and fruitful life in later years is to have something you are passionate about; something that gets you out of bed in the morning and gets you moving. Although I have little desire to retire much before the age of seventy, when I do I know Iíll be painting a lot more. Something else Iíve decided Iíd like to do is to take up jazz piano. Itís something Iíve considered for a long time now and I think the stimulated brain activity and muscular dexterity would be very life affirming.
I read today about a local woman who has just turned 111. I donít know how recent the photo of her was but she looked remarkably well. The article made mention of the fact that she is still physically well, too. 111! Dad was born in 1910 and heís been dead for nearly 40 years. Mum was born in 1914 and often talked about how sheíd lived through the greatest period of change the world has ever seen. This woman predates them both and is still here. I can only begin to imagine what her life story would be like.
Itís weird to think that if my parents hadnít bonked on a certain night (I honestly canít imagine them bonking during the day) I wouldnít be here. And if theyíd bonked on a different night, who else might have happened along? And if Iíd had a kid or three, who would they be? What age would they be now? What hopes and dreams might they have had? Iíll never know because it never happened. The mathematical probability of any one of us being who we are is so infinitesimally remote it can do your head in just thinking about it.
I have a friend who vehemently disagrees with me when I say Iíve been lucky in life. ďLuck has nothing to do with it!Ē she exclaims. ďEverything youíve achieved youíve worked hard for.Ē Maybe, but it was pure luck I was born into a safe environment surrounded by people who cared for and encouraged me. It was pure luck I was born in a part of the world free of war and famine. It was pure luck I met the people in life who have influenced me so positively. The list goes on, and so I say, Iíve been lucky.
Who knows what happens when we die. When I was a lot younger I used to get stressed out about mortality. These days I take it in my stride. Yes, I hope to live until Iím 106 but if I was to find out tomorrow that I had just a few months to live, I think Iíd be better placed to deal with it than many. (Yeah, yeah, easy to say, I know.) In the meantime, all I can say is that despite all the doom and gloom of the times we live in, I wouldnít be dead for quids!
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