Yeah, you heard me right: my father-in-law is the Usain Bolt of 80- to 84-year-olds in New Jersey.
Yes, I’m being cheeky by referring to him as an old man, because he clearly has maintained a youthful vigor. At 80, he has a bionic hip and a bum shoulder, but he’s still out there training and competing, and he won the 100 dash in his age division in the New Jersey senior Olympics. I’m confident he can run the 100 faster than me. He has officially qualified for the national Senior Games (I didn’t even know that was a thing). Pretty cool. Also he takes dance classes, for fun. Also he went boogie-boarding with us in the ocean last summer. Also he’s an active and successful realtor. Also he’s married to an equally fabulous-at-80 woman who exercises regularly, keeps her mind fit, and has it all going on.
I can’t decide today if all of this makes me feel inspired or inadequate.
I’m in the midst of a cold-turned-sinus-infection that I can’t beat, and Anthony is in the midst of a horrifying double attack of gout in one foot. He’s been walking like a slo-mo zombie, and his face has been ashen with pain, for almost a week. We woke up this morning and it was situation normal. I rushed down to the kitchen to get breakfast and school lunches going. Jesse came down quick and sang happy birthday to me, and then I heard Nick bawling ad nauseum upstairs. He was upset that he didn’t get to sing first. After managing that emotional need, I came downstairs and got busy again with my morning tasks. Then Jesse’s tics took over and I got to listen to her say all sorts of gross things about sex, so I nattered at her and tried to get her a little more on track before sending her to school. The whole time, while everyone’s thinking it’s my birthday, I’m trying to fend off thinking about the fact that it’s also my father’s memorial day.
It was all very frustrating, but also normal. My life is the same at 50 as it was yesterday, when I was 49. Life is magical that way.
* * * * *
When I was in my teens, I recall becoming aware of the cult of female youthfulness in America, this desperate need our culture teaches women to feel — keep the breasts high, the tummy and legs taut, the hair not-gray, the skin not-wrinkled. But I would see photos of grizzled old women and think how beautiful they were, having lived a life that shone through their eyes and well-placed wrinkles. I would see arthritis-bent hands and wonder at the labors and arts that made them that way. I didn’t pay any mind to the extra weight many people carry into the beginnings of old age. I wanted to look like that when I was old and weary. I wanted to look old and used and well-lived, not surgically enhanced. I thought my old grandma was one of the most beautiful people in the world, with her gray hair and soft wrinkles and loose skin.
But now I’m actually aging up good and plenty, and I’m starting to think maybe it’s not all that great. My aging skin gets really dry here in Wisconsin, and itchy. I guess I could do without the itchy chapping. My arthritic fingers — very well-used by years of piano and a variety of manual labors — hurt sometimes. I’m less flexible and pull muscles too easily. And I admit, with 30 extra pounds on my body and dark circles under my eyes from the stress and exhaustion of parenting and a practically non-existent exercise regime, I don’t feel so awesomely beautiful most days. I just feel tired.
I know there are things I can do to change this. Regular exercise is fundamental, but hard to fit in with kids around. I could use lotion more frequently. Maybe floss more. Eat even more vegetables. Drink chamomile. Stuff like that, right?
Not on my list? Cosmetic surgery. Leaving aside my general opposition to it, how could I live with myself if I died having a tummy tuck and left my children motherless? I’d rather do crunches. Nor do I want to use anti-aging creams unless they have some positive health benefit, like reducing pain or helping my skin chap less. And I’m too lazy to dye my hair (it would never look as good as my original color anyway) or wear make-up. I can do without all those chemicals to boot.
Maybe if I started every day doing a New Zealand Haka, facing off with myself in a large mirror, my tongue lolling and my eyes rolling, I would feel better about myself. At least the reflection would more accurately portray how I feel inside.
* * * * *
Or maybe I can just start taking a fresh look at myself, at 50.
Look at that hand.
Those knuckles didn’t used to be so knobby, nor the fingertips quite so puffy; my pointer finger has started to corkscrew to the left a bit with arthritis; my pinkie used to be straight, without turning in at the tip like that. You see how the middle two fingers are sort of close together? That happened in college, when over-use led to some sort of tendon injury that radiated up the top of my forearm. My fingers look older than 50 to me, but I guess that’s because they’re well-used. I’ve made a lot of beautiful music with them, cooked a lot of good food, built a lot of beautiful things, planted beautiful gardens.
The age spots tell me I haven’t hidden from the sun. My forearm shows those age spots even better.
Could use some lotion. Earlier this summer I remarked to Anthony that my skin looked good this year. He answered, “That’s because your tan makes the age spots less visible.”
I love my man.
And look at the age spots under my eye.
Never mind the fuzzy photo, I can still make out the age and wrinkles and grays. And unplucked eyebrows. Another function of laziness. But that’s still my brown eye. A better picture would show you that it still flashes glints of gold, and maybe there’s a richer sadness in there than there used to be, the gift of 11 years of painful parenthood.
And here’s my love.
30 years after we first met, our faces are rounder, our skin more splotchy, our teeth more yellow. The hairlines have changed. But the smiles are real and true. There’s a joy in being together that sings out from those faces, and a life of love speaks through the crow’s feet around those eyes. I wouldn’t cover that up with makeup or skin peels or airbrushing, not for a million bucks. These are two very beautiful people. And I happen to be one of them.
* * * * *
But maybe I could still do a little more to take care of myself and be healthier. I’ll take inspiration after all from my father-in-law, who has fought back against aging, not with superficial steps like hair dyes or skin chemicals, but by working from the inside out –staying mentally and physically busy, exercising, working, reading, thinking, traveling. In other words, by living. I won’t ever be the fastest old lady in Wisconsin, but maybe I can strive to be the healthiest, happiest, and most-well-adjusted old lady on the shores of Lake Michigan, some day, 30 years from now.