|Posted by Egonne Roth on September 4, 2014 at 5:20 AM|
On turning sixty
I turned sixty in April and enjoyed a weekend of celebrating but there was one curious incident that has stayed with me: my friend, a professor of social work came in, wished me mazel tov and then asked, “Are you okay?” At first I did not comprehend the meaning of her question and then I understood, “are you okay at entering a decade that will be characterised by retirement, growing older in a way one has not been conscious of earlier?” My spontaneously answer was “yes!” And her response was “Really?” She smiled in a manner that said, “I’ll be here when you need to talk!” I know she loves me and I love her so her question needs serious consideration.
Shortly after that I started reading a book she had lent me: Irvin D. Yalom’s The Schopenhauer Cure. He opens with a scene where his protagonist discovers he has a skin melanoma which could prove fatal – he has to confront death and life, religion and faith. Maybe the timing of the book was more meaningful than my friend had intended. It made me think of a poem by ‘my’ poet, Olga Kirsch
The Older One Becomes
The older one becomes, the more time spent
on upkeep of self:
Half an hour daily merely to prevent
muscles and joints from seizing;
another vainly trying to erase
what age grooves on the face
faintly at first, then brazening its graffiti.
Time for applying chemicals that suppress
fungi and sweat,
waiting for them to dry so one may dress.
Enough of this.
I must go to where you sit crouched at your desk
oblivious to the radio drooling news
to me with my book hurried here by the thought
that however long we may have together
will seem too short.
It is true that we so often think that whatever time we have left is too short – too short to do what we want to do, too short to love the one we love most, too short to have to face death…. That is ultimately for most of us the crux of the matter: the fear and uncertainty of having to face death. In Kirsch’s opening line she says that the older we get the more time we need to fight the process that will eventually bring us face to face with our own death; the process that reminds us that that is where we are headed. But why is this such a frightening prospect? Maybe because most people cannot face the fact that their days on this earth are counted, that we will cease to exist in the way we know and understand. Most religions offer some form of life after death – heaven or hell, reincarnation, whatever – so that we can feel we won’t just stop being.
I have no fight with this but in the process we become so fixated on the life after death that we ignore the life before death. I have a friend, a poet, who maintains that he is quite convinced there is no life after death and that this is the only life he is going to have and so he will live the years he has left to their full. And while I do believe in a life after death, I agree with him that I want to live the years I have left with as much passion and enjoyment as I can muster. This brings me back to the beginning of this blog. Yes, I am okay at turning sixty. I am planning actively for my retirement. I do not want to join the “forever young” club. Rather, I, actually we, Judy and I, want to exploit the advantages of growing older, of having cheaper train tickets and museum entrances, of knowing our world is eventually going to shrink and we will become slower in moving through it. Just as we worked hard at enjoying our youth, sometimes in such foolish ways and we did everything to become successful useful members of society, so now, as we face retirement in a few years, I want to experience it in all its fullness. I want to enjoy the fact that shopping is now something done of necessity; that reading is for pleasure and not for career advancement; that I choose my clothes for comfort and not as a statement determined by fashion; I need not be driven by lust for possessions because I am beginning to realise one day, not so far off, my children will wonder what to do with everything we have collected with such care.
I do realise that in part Kirsch is right: we have to do certain things like exercise to “prevent / muscles and joints from seizing”. In explaining to me why it really is important, my daughter once said, “Ma, you have to keep in shape because I may have to look after you one day!” I promise I will, but as important as building muscles so important is building memories for when we are sitting on the veranda, whether of our little apartment in Berlin or the old age home in Nahariya or even my daughter’s home in the Cape watching the sunset. I am seriously not certain I have a preference where that stoep is going to be as long as my Judy is sitting next to me. Then I want to be able to turn to her with satisfaction and say, “Remember, love, when we had that crazy celebration of our sixtieth birthdays? Remember all those people who came to wish us well? Remember our loooong celebration on the island? Wasn’t that fun?” And she will pat my hand and say, “It was! It was!” and fetch our photo album. We will page through it and relive every joyous moment, thankful to have such memories to share because the older we get the more memories feed the soul.
But now… now I must first do my exercises - up and down in the pool of the villa we have rented to celebrate our sixtieth birthdays with friends and family from all over.