Monday, February 27, 2012

Going like sixty

In Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta’s narrator is worried about her older brother. As they both sink more deeply into their “morbid middle years,” he has begun to have serious health problems. Denise scans the newspaper obituaries, and if the person is under the age of sixty, she checks for the cause of death. She keeps a list:

     47, ovarian cancer
     53, heart failure
     58, complications from pneumonia
     54, breast cancer
     46, self-inflicted gunshot
     59, pancreatic cancer
     38, motorcycle accident
     48, breast cancer
     58, overdose (“yet to be determined,” “toxicology report,” and “bottles of various prescription medications”)
     35, drowning
     46, died in a fall
     57, sudden heart attack
     50, heart attack suspected
     42, heart and kidney failure
     45, car accident
     59, complications from a brain hemorrhage
     49, killed himself by hanging
     59, lung cancer
     40, sudden cardiac failure
     50, ovarian cancer
Today I am sixty. The cause of my death, when it comes at last, will no longer be of interest to anyone. With four children under the age of ten at home, I don’t always feel sixty (and rarely act like it). I sure wish Churchill were speaking for me when he said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” I’m afraid, though, that sixty is the beginning the end—especially for someone who has been living with the whispers of Stage IV metastatic cancer in my ear.

Is it cancer or old age that is limiting my physical mobility? I can still run, although I must look like a state prisoner in ankle chains, hobbling away from the dogs. I can’t throw a forward pass more than twenty yards any longer, because I can’t drive off my back leg. I can’t get out of a car without rotating my entire torso to the left and hoisting myself as if I were climbing up the side of a ship. For an ex-athlete like me, these limitations are nearly a loss of identity. Saul Bellow says somewhere that the heart never stops yearning after pretty girls, even when a man is in his seventies. (And if anyone should know. . . .) That’s not really true for me, but playing catch with my sons or hurrying to make it across the street on yellow is an invitation to disappointment.

You’d think that being a one-book author at sixty would bother me more. After all, when the hell is my second going to be finished? Especially since cancer is not going to leave me very much longer to finish it. And then there are all those things that I will not have a chance to tell my children—about boys and girls, about first dates, about poetry and science, about college and the life of the mind, about the beauty of their mother. Maybe I should get started on writing them down.

But the surprise of turning sixty is a quiet sense of contentment, even when you are living with a terminal disease. Ambition is not diminished, but perhaps it becomes a little more realistic. Even if you intend to undertake a grand project, you know that it will be accomplished a small task at a time. If you are a writer, that means putting one sentence doggedly after another. Looking back over thirty years of a largely unsuccessful literary life, I see that’s what I have been doing all along. There is no reason to change now, even if I could.

What I am grateful for, though, is to be free of any wish for youth. At sixty, you can’t get away with pretending to be young. (Not even with four kids under the age of ten at home!) Sixty is the turning point. I don’t care what anyone says. Sixty is not the new forty. Although I may refuse to call myself a “senior,” I know that sixty is the onset of old age. Is this the promised end? Or image of that horror? It is neither. It is a chance to imagine some satisfying conclusion, and perhaps even to achieve it.


Robert Levy said...

Your devotion and energy in the education of your children continues to provide inspiration and encouragement to those of us who are younger. If a sixty year old can coach pee-wee football, why not a fifty year old dad?

Anonymous said...

Whenever I begin to ponder too closely my age (and all that goes with it at 66), I take comfort oddly enough in Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT. I am not sure what that says about Beckett's play, but I am--with each passing month and year--learning what it says about me.

"I cant' go on. I must go on."

I cannot remember if that is the exact quote, but it is close enough for now.

All the best from your blog-friend in the Panhandle of Florida.


interpolations said...

Thank you, I enjoyed this, like you and Reverend Ames I came to parenthood later in life than most, and like you I'm an athlete (was!) aging in installments with little or no grace, and with absolutely no comprehension, that's for sure. Happy belated birthday.

Shelley said...

As a mild antidote to the death list compiled, may I suggest a book I'm just reading, Should I Be Tested For Cancer? Maybe Not, and Here's Why, by Gilbert Welch.

Among a lot of statistics, there's an insight that at various points we can decide whether to focus on pursuing disease or pursuing healthy life.

You have clearly opted for the latter!

Anonymous said...

You're only as old as you let yourself feel.