I got stuck in a turtleneck last year and almost died. As I attempted to pull my favorite wool/cashmere blend sweater over my head, it got trapped on my glasses, the fabric sealing my mouth and triggering my animal brain. I panicked, tried to scream for help, which only pulled more fabric down my throat. A tiny part of my brain hoped it would be David that found my bloated, naked body, but most of my brain just shrieked in red alert. I finally stopped flailing and realized the only exit strategy was a complete reversal, so I pulled the sweater back down, gasping to metabolize the adrenaline.
A few months later, I had my first hot flash and it was exactly like the turtleneck scenario. It was an unexpected, sudden, near-death experience. All logic ran for the hills. Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god my brain shrieked. You’re dying! Before I knew what was happening, I had stripped off my clothes, run to the kitchen and stuck my head in the freezer door.
“You hot?” David asked, nonplussed by my nudity and my screaming.
“Well, I have just had either a heart attack or a hot flash,” I panted. In my late-40’s, I’ve been expecting the shitshow that is perimenopause. But I was completely unprepared for the sheer panic of that spontaneous combustion.
This was my official welcome to what my sister-in-law calls the invisible age. “50 used to be the age of invisibility. But social media has pushed it back. You’re basically a cultural ghost now,” Christie stated matter-of-factly.
It’s true that I catch my glimpse in the mirror sometimes and am startled to see my mother staring back. My knees ache if I hike too much. I wear progressive lenses. I have a softer, rounder belly that no amount of yoga will shrink. My kindle is defaulted to the text size that places approximately seven words on each page. Bartenders no longer flirt with me.
Society says we should be ashamed of our wrinkles, our cellulite, our inability to turn heads or carry life in our wombs. But I mostly find aging liberating and exciting. Our culture fetishizes being Forever 21, but that sort of thinking is a hungry ghost. Conventional approaches to aging focus on the negatives, treating aging like a catastrophe to manage rather than as an opportunity to anticipate. It doesn’t have to be only hip replacements, sexual dysfunction and assisted living, right? If our cultural stereotypes and expectations can be trusted, our only options for a fulfilling second act are knitting or golf. Just set me on fire and float me away like a Viking already.
Maybe it’s because David and I both work with the elderly on the daily, see the wisdom and humor they have to share with a world that mostly ignores them. Thinking about getting old triggers fears of mortality. But death is the mind rehearsing, ruminating about an unknowable future. When we are preoccupied with possible outcomes, we can’t enjoy the present moment. Being mortal is an immutable fact; death needn’t be something to rail against.
We need to take back the dignity and beauty of aging, stop pushing aside anything and anyone deemed passé by our too-young cultural influencers. Pretty is an adjective, transient as smoke. Beauty is a verb, a way to describe our souls. Pretty fades but beauty endures.
And we will get old if we are fortunate enough. Aging is a gift, because what’s the alternative? Only the luckiest get to evolve.
Research indicates that the elderly can be as productive, creative and adventurous as their younger counterparts. Diana Nyad swam from Cuba to Florida at age 64. John Glenn took his second trip to space at age 77. William Baldwin tightrope walked across the Grand Canyon at age 82. Teiichi Igarashi climbed Mt. Fiji at age 100. Remaining vital lies mostly in attitude. The easiest way to age mindfully is to eradicate the phrase, “I’m too old to…” There truly aren’t that many things we become too old to try.
David recently read about two German men who broke out of their nursing home to attend Wacken Open Air, Europe’s largest heavy metal festival. At 3:00 am, police finally located the men, raging as hard as the teens around them and begging to stay. Because, my husband always adds, good metal has no expiration date. I hope this will be me, he adds wistfully.
Since I will probably not be the first woman killed by a hot flash, maybe I will join him.