I was about 11 and on the way home from Hebrew School. I began thinking about being alive and having thoughts and feelings as a human being when it occurred to me that people only lived into their 70s. Back then, it was a problem. I could not reconcile the idea of having a living soul for a limited time. I likened it to going to a movie theater. The movie would end, and people would leave the theater except me. I would no longer exist, but the world outside of the theater would. I was incredulous!
My grandparents were alive in their 70s, but I saw them as separate from my life and very old. My self-centered thinking was becoming aware that others had thoughts in their minds as I did. Thousands, even millions, of people had inner lives as I did. I was bewildered.
This piece was written by a retired mental health worker in San Diego.
My parents and teachers saw my friends and generation as the “modern generation.” We were learning new math. The world was changing fast, and I was participating in it. It was an exciting time. I never considered that future generations would eventually date me. I was excited about growing older. My sister was three years older. That was a big difference when I was young. I imagined being 24 and my sister 27. I knew that difference would be much smaller as if I was catching up.
Leaving home, graduating from school, meeting my eventual wife, starting on a path of a career, and having children were all new challenges that gave me a purpose, confidence, and direction. As my experience grew, so did the size and complexity of the organization that employed me. Again, it was all exciting. My children got older, and my hair got grayer. Nonetheless, it was still on the way towards something. Many of my colleagues were older, and I saw them retire. Eventually, I would reach retirement age. It finally came, and all seemed good. My parents had gotten older and passed away by the time that occurred. My sister and I held the torches. We were the respected elders.
Years went by, and people who were my friends or colleagues developed illnesses and disabilities. I no longer saw them as pathfinders for my future in exciting ways. Instead, their clay feet revealed my own. While healthy, it was in my purview that life was limited. I was not bewildered as I was when 11. I no longer looked to the future as a goal to accomplish. I wanted to collect experiences. I did not have a bucket list, but I wanted to fill the bucket. My sister died after a severe but quick illness, which shook my and my wife’s world. It became clear that I was not just an elder but old. My kids and grandkids were determining their paths. While wanting them as friends, I was always a parent. I realized I experienced my parents in the same way, regretfully.
My career and the identity that provided me have passed. I feel good about what I have done and do not mourn its’ loss. Every day my mentors, celebrities of my generation, and friends die. Surprisingly, my father-in-law is still alive, nearly 99 years of age, though his body and mind are no longer what they were. I am more at peace with not leaving the movie theater when life ends. I am more concerned with what movies are left for me to see. I want to savor the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes with my wife, not knowing who will not leave the theater first. Being older makes me understand the phrase “stop and smell the roses.” I want to continue to be able to do it while I can. Hopefully, there will be more episodes though how many is still the question.