“She was pretty, too,” I overheard someone say, after mentioning how handsome my late husband was. He was talking about me, the handsome man’s widow. The verb “was” means no more, gone, no longer; the word we use for the dead.
When I was in my early thirties and starting my career as a marriage and family therapist, I wanted to work with the elderly. I scored a job at a prestigious gerontology clinic and, after a short training period, was assigned the job of group therapist to a population of 70, 80, and 90 year olds. Forty years younger than my cohorts, I knew nothing about the issues of aging. My supervisor gave me a single piece of guidance—“Aging,” she told me, “is all about loss.”
That was a long time ago. For so long, I was unable to digest her words. Loss had not yet sunk its cagey teeth into me. My parents, brother, son, and husband were still very much alive. My own health, as far as I knew, was fine. With ever-after shining in my innocent eyes, I planned my unblemished future.
I was in my fifties when my parents died, sixty-three when my younger brother died, sixty-eight when my eldest son died, and seventy when my husband died. In 2022, I celebrated my 80th birthday without any of them.
“Aging,” she told me, “is all about loss.”
With eighty-two now staring me in the face, my supervisor’s words, “Aging is all about loss,” follows wherever I go. Even on my best days, I can’t get away from their terrifying warning. The “loss” to which my supervisor referred—I finally, sickeningly understand—is not only the loss of loved ones; it’s the loss of self.
Though my mind is intact, my body is riddled with arthritis; my back hurts. I wear hearing aids and step slowly and cautiously wherever I go. Nights are interrupted by trips to the bathroom. To get out of my psychotherapy chair, I must lean forward and use my arms to lift up, embarrassed that my younger-than-me clients (I no longer work with the elderly) see my struggle. I purchased a chairlift for my second story house and use it daily.
“Aging is all about loss,” screams at me whenever I look in the mirror. I used to like my reflection as it confirmed the, “you’re so pretty,” my mother and husband so lovingly told me. It reassured me that I am—pretty, energetic, bright-eyed, and invulnerable. Before I was pretty, I was simply pretty. Was had not yet made its inevitable move, turning me into an afterthought. My thick, long auburn hair made me feel confident and desirable and my slim, bosomy body turned heads.
My morph from youngest person in the room to oldest took decades, but while I was getting there, the time it took to arrive was not on my mind or even my sights. Old age was the destination and I had no use for it.
I am wiser. Though getting there took more than years.
Old age, nevertheless, is where I’ve landed. And much as I may rail against it, I’m caught in its wily clutches and can’t get out. There’s nowhere to go but forward and after that—out. I could, I suppose, abort the trip, but I still like it here. I still love working with clients; I still take walks and lift weights, though not the heavy kind; I still enjoy my home, I still have dinner with friends, and laugh with my grandchildren.
I am wiser. Though getting there took more than years. It took the unwelcome truth of admitting what Socrates tells us, “The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.” I know my charge is to allow myself to fit into my current form, to accept the was and surrender the is. As friends get sick and die, as I make too many condolence calls and see too many doctors, my eyes linger on the past where is was how I knew myself. I was safe there.