Remember when you were three? Probably not. I recall what that age was like via my memory of what my young daughter and her friends would say when asked how old they are.
"Three going on four." They were so eager to be older, they'd fudge their age to get the next birthday into the answer.
Believe me, those days are long gone for us old folks. I'm fine with saying "73" when asked my age. What's more annoying is having to scroll down through history when a web site wants me to select the year I was born.
2000's, gone. 1990's, keep going. 1980's, around halfway there. 1970's, graduated from college. 1960's, high school. 1950's, childhood. 1940's, ah, finally reached the promised age-land. Which reminds me that World War II had only been over for a few years when I was born in 1948.
Dude, you're ancient! I'll say to myself.
For sure you'll never hear someone my age say "Seventy-three going on seventy-four." We've already got plenty of reminders that while time marches on for everybody, it feels like it's sprinting after you qualify for Medicare.
Every night just before I go to sleep I read a few pages from a book in the Gabriel Allon series by Daniel Silva. Allon is an Israeli government assassin, counterterrorist spy, and world class art restorer. The twenty books in the series are so compellingly well-written, at first I never wanted them to end.
But now that I've read eight of them, I'm getting worried that I'll die before I finish the series. A thought like that wouldn't have crossed my mind when I was younger. Hey, there's plenty of time to do whatever, including reading books.
I used to just read a couple of pages every night. A few months ago I switched to four pages so I could finish a Gabriel Allon book twice as fast. Hopefully I won't get a terminal cancer diagnosis. However, the good news, aside from impending death, would be that I'm a rapid reader.
Last November I got a glaucoma diagnosis. Unsettling, for sure. However, medicated drops have lowered my eye pressure considerably, so I've been told it's pretty unlikely that I'll go blind or even lose functional vision.
Last month my eye doctor referred me to a glaucoma specialist in Portland. After I had a bunch of tests, the ophthalmologist sat down with me and talked about my condition.
"I think we're going to be able to get you across the finish line," he said. I let those words sink in for a few seconds. Then I replied, "Given my age, 73, it sounds like you're saying that I'm going to die before losing my sight -- not that I'll be raising my hands in victory as crowds cheer me across the finish line."
"Correct," he said. So what I can look forward to is being able to see on my death bed.
Such is how medical care tends to go after a certain age. A friend who's younger than me, but still old, related how his doctor told him that prostate cancer no longer is a big concern, since probably he'll die from something else before the slow-growing cancer got him.
I don't want to give the impression that old age is only about disease, disability, and death. It is true, though, that us old folks tend to have lower expectations for what a good day consists of.
There's a front desk person at my athletic club who likes to ask me "How was your workout?" as I'm leaving. If I say, "fine," he'll reply "What, just fine? Not great!" A few days ago the question was asked again.
After hearing "How was your workout?" this time I said, "Absolutely amazing. The most enjoyable experience I've ever had. Nothing will ever compare to the joy of this gym visit." The point I was trying to get across with my sarcasm is that fine is pretty damn good when you're over 70.
Covid has magnified the differences between young and old. I feel this when I'm exercising on an elliptical trainer in the athletic club's aerobics room, N-95 quality mask firmly affixed to my face, watching young people walk by mostly maskless.
They have that air of confidence, a strut, really, that wordlessly screams to me, I'm fit, healthy, and young; the coronavirus scares me not at all; masks are for fearful old folks.
I envy their attitude, even though it doesn't accurately reflect the full picture of the public health reality. I just remember what it was like to have time stretching out before me as if the years remaining would never end.
Time is relative. Not in an Einstein'ian sense for us non-physicists, in the sense expressed by a man who wrote a moving essay for The Atlantic, "A Neuroscientist Prepares For Death." Highly recommended, though obviously it isn't the cheeriest reading. David Linden writes:
While I was recovering from surgery, the pathology report came back and the news was bad—it wasn’t a benign teratoma after all, but rather a malignant cancer called synovial sarcoma. Because of its location, embedded in my heart wall, the surgeon could not remove all of the cancer cells. Doing so would have rendered my heart unable to pump blood. The oncologist told me to expect to live an additional six to 18 months.
...If someone had told me one year ago, when I was 59, that I had five years left to live, I would have been devastated and felt cheated by fate. Now the prospect of five more years strikes me as an impossible gift. With five more years, I could spend good times with all of my people, get some important work done, and still be able to travel and savor life’s sweetness. The point is that, in our minds, there is no such thing as objective value, even for something as fundamental as five years of life.
I recall what a modern practitioner of the Stoic philosophy said in a recording I listened to: "We are all living the dream life. Because no matter how bad our life may seem to us, it would be a dream life for someone in a worse situation."
Linden would rejoice if he had five years to live, even though that prognosis would have appeared dismal before his cancer diagnosis. This is one of the bright sides of growing old.
I'm much better at appreciating the present moment now, because at 73, I'm well aware that there's no guarantee how many moment-filled years remain to me. As my (fairly old) dentist says when I ask how he's doing, "Keeping my head above water."
Not swimming the English Channel. Not training to break a personal 200 meter time. Just keeping the head above water. Sounds good enough to me.