Photo: Brian Velenchenko
Skin: no longer taut. Lungs: a little bit breathless. Face and body: how did that happen? Susan Miller reports on the shocks (and weird graces) of getting older.
The actress comes on the screen. Her face fills the frame. Someone in the audience gasps, "She got so old!" As if it were a crime. As if she'd gone out in her pajamas or had food in her teeth. As if she'd done it purposely to affront us. She completely let herself get old. I mean, she didn't have to if she didn't want to. If she'd really tried, she could have saved us the suffering and indignity of having to gaze upon the hideous and unforgivable countenance of someone unyoung. It's a betrayal. Our loyalties crumble. The bonds of affection come undone. What a shame. She got so old.
The other day in a restaurant I had to pantomime my order. I had to actually pantomime food: "I'll have a bowl of soup and a side of...of...those...oh, you know...the umm..." (Lucky it was something the restaurant was famous for.) "Biscuits?" the waitress says. "Biscuits." Thank God.
I'm 59. I see my own age in the necks of my friends. It makes me happy to see the necks of my friends. I love them for their sloppy jawlines, their less than taut skin. We are all stunned. We don't know how this happened to us. This stage of things. The foreign shape we're assuming. The adjustment to this uncomfortable new body. In its way, as awkward and as much of a surprise as adolescence. Remember how unsure of it you were? How unprepared for its full meaning? Those breasts. Those biceps. You have maybe 25 years to belong to it, to respond to its pleasures and injuries, to finally grasp its meaning—to live there. When, with only a few subtle warnings, it starts to change again.
"Go like this to your hand. Pull up the skin. Does it stay or fall back down?"
"No, I mean it."
"I've lost my elasticity."
"We're not fabulous anymore."
Ethel dances every week with a company of people over 65. Every Thursday she puts on her leotard, sweatpants, Reeboks, and gets herself over to the Y ("Sometimes I call the senior citizen van"), where they rehearse a new dance: "When I move, I feel like myself."
"How do you do it, Ethel?" I say.
"What should I be doing? Pinochle? Clipping coupons? Watching the serials? The Zoloft helps."
Ethel, what do you know? What am I going to know that I don't know now? Give me a clue, an idea, a road map. Tell me.
It's swift: How you start off the day looking familiar to yourself and then suddenly, in the middle of the afternoon, at, say, a quarter to 3, you're not young anymore. In an instant, every year you've spent on earth appears on your face. And for the first time since you were a baby, you look your age.
Bill calls. Without a hello-how-are-you, he says, "We're old. Do you realize this?"
It's too dark in restaurants. I don't know the name of every music group. I can't get comfortable in a chair. What did you say? What did he say? What? Oh my God, all the things that irritated me about my father are driving me crazy about myself. All of the intolerable concerns with minutiae, with the wattage in a room, the volume on the TV set. With pace. And the disintegration of culture, of taste, of style.
I used to think old people came into the world that way. There were babies. Children. Adults. And old people. It didn't sink in for a long time that one person, including me, would actually change—inexorably—from one to the other. That one person could embody all those opposing forms.
It's 7 a.m. I'm breathless. I can't keep up with them. They're in their 50s and 60s, a few 70-somethings, and a can't-tell-what or two—up and down the stairs, past the dinosaurs, past the Indian storytellers, the clay bowls, ancient things. They stride the length of the museum. We are walking on the wild side. That's what it's called, this ritual these New Yorkers have, way too early in the morning, every winter Wednesday at the Museum of Natural History. You don't have to be old to walk. But I notice everyone here is. And they are positively cheery. Animated. Companionable. Stirring the air with their opinions. They walk and talk. And afterward, surely, they will be on to other things. To their day. Dinosaurs, storytellers, ancient things. Our witnesses. Our history. Our citizens.
My mother calls. "I'm seeing someone."
"You're seeing someone."
"I'm seeing a man. We had dinner."
"How did this come about?"
"Remember I told you I went to the movies. With the Beautymans. And their friend."
"Who you didn't like."
"I didn't not like him. I just wasn't ready. It made me more lonely. For Daddy."
"So when did you decide you liked him?"
"Be happy for me."
We Hear You!