I’ll turn eighty-five in a few days. It’s very nice to be alive on my birthday.
My feelings are nevertheless mixed. Two biblical metaphors of aging express my ambivalence. One describes our latter days as those “stricken in years.” The other depicts us as “full of years.”
The images are diametrical opposites. Like anything that’s intrinsically true, its opposite is equally true. These two metaphors suggest of my life and of yours that things are never either-or, but always both-and. Life is a paradoxical business.
I’m happy to report that, at this moment at least, I’m not stricken with debilitating conditions as I’ve known other friends and acquaintances to suffer. In that regard, I am fortunate, but nonetheless plagued with those common diminishments of aging that drive me batty. To that extent, I’m stricken in years.
I don’t trust my gait any more. For my entire life, walking was second nature, something I did all the time but never gave it a second thought. I now walk with caution, a deliberateness that’s new to me. There are times when I feel like the man walking a tightrope: he dares not take any step for granted. Each one counts; the wrong one might be disastrous.
Most elders are familiar with what I call the ‘mission inexplicable’ syndrome. You know how when you leave one room to get something you need from another room you have no idea why you’d gone to this other room in the first place. I will usually figure it out. In the meantime, it’s aggravating.
Names! Why is it with advancing years, it’s names that become so difficult to recall? I’ve found no credible scientific or medical explanations. I read once that Nelson Rockefeller, even on a good day, could never remember names. He greeted everyone with the salutation “Hi fella” typically delivered robustly, with a big smile and lots of enthusiasm. I never learned how he addressed women whose name he couldn’t recall. He worked it out somehow: he remained electable during his career despite this handicap. There’s hope.
The way names elude us is incredibly arbitrary; the phenomenon behaves like lightning, striking unexpectedly and always in the least likely places. I can tell you all about a person I’ve known for years; times we’ve been together, about their kids, their job’s, their age’s and spouse’s and for all that I cannot recall their names. And then too, just the other day, I bumped into an acquaintance in Walmart I’d not seen for thirty years. I greeted her by name right away. You just never know.
My mind has developed a mind of its own. With age, it’s become perverse, as if it had grown resentful of doing my bidding for all these years and rarely receiving any thanks. Minds declare their independence. They protest at the most inopportune times. Our minds know just how to even the score. Best be kind to them while we can. Show gratitude.
To be ‘full of years’ is a distinct part of the aging experience. It’s about arriving at a vantage point that offers a unique perspective that only longevity affords. We have the opportunity to see the larger picture more clearly.
To me it looks something like this:
Consider your life as if it were a single day – say, from sunrise to sunset. The light of day varies from hour to hour. In our youth, in the morning hours of life, light is continually growing brighter by the hour. Our appetite for discovery is voracious; in fact, we spend just about all our time exploring what’s out there. We’re less concerned, at least then, about what’s in here. We’re seeking opportunities, learning where opportunities are, forming a vocation, playing, raising children and otherwise positioning ourselves for the life we hope to lead. This activity reaches its zenith around mid-day. This mid-life sun is brightest and illuminates everything with what we might call overhead light. The world will never be as bright again as it was at high noon. Mid-life is dazzling.
Bright overhead light is especially useful when we are involved in single-focused tasks. Seeing details in the particulars of what we are doing is important. The management tasks of childrearing, of securing a sound economic base, cultivating new relationships, running a business, managing a household; the tasks go on and on and they relentlessly demand our attention. However, how much we actually wind up seeing has to do less with the brightness of the light than how it’s slanted.
Mid-day light lingers briefly. It begins to yield to early afternoon, often subtly, the way summer slips unnoticed into autumn. A noonday sun is, for all the brilliance of its luminance, limited. Rather than revealing the contours and textures of the larger landscape in which we’ve been living, it can obscure them. Overhead light doesn’t cast the lateral shadows necessary for revealing the shape of our landscape. It’s a curious comment to make, but to see as much of our entire lives as we can, its shadows are as critical as the light to comprehending the whole picture.
This is a long way around to say how the long look at my life is enriching. Sitting still I notice so much more.
It still amazes me how a huge part of my life eluded me for years; one example is how little I really knew my mother even though I spent my boyhood with her. Wasn’t she someone whom God placed there to serve me and my siblings and who had no feelings and trials (except me) of her own? I loved her, but didn’t know her at all. It wasn’t until about age fifty-five when, for unknown reasons, I suddenly appreciated her strength.
My father was serving overseas in Europe from late 1943 to 1945. He was near the front lines. Our only links to him were the sporadic V-Mails, by which combatants communicated with loved ones. Mother was never sure from day to day just where he was (V-Mails revealed only ‘Somewhere in Europe’) or whether he was alive or dead. For me, the war was a lark in which I idolized my father the victorious hero, not the vulnerable soldier. To the question of why it took me so long to recognize her strengths as a person, I can only say that for people like me, it takes a long time to grasp the big picture.
Another birthday offers me the opportunity to see greater details in the big picture, pieces of the landscape I’d not noticed before. As it turns out, late afternoons are the most revealing times of day.
Full of years is something like that. It’s very nice to be alive on my birthday.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.