Seventy-nine years ago today (a Tuesday), at 11:15 p.m., I was born—not in a log cabin on the prairie, but in St. Anthony's hospital in Rockford, Illinois. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been in office eight months and ten days, and he would be the only president I would know until I was 12 years old. World War I had ended only 15 years and three days before. It was a world without television, computers, internet, or cell phones. The first transoceanic airline service was still two years away. Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge had begun only 9 months earlier.
I grew up in a world totally unknown by, and alien to, the vast majority of people alive today. Yet to me, as I passed from day to day, year to year, each seemed perfectly natural. Things were what they were. We cannot miss things that we do not yet know will exist. The same is true today. We can't imagine what will be normal for someone seventy years from now, though those living then may well wonder how we ever got along without them.
So I can say “Today I am 79 years old.” But I can also say “Today popcorn elephants disgorge purple butterflies.” Both statements mean about the same to me in that each is incomprehensible. The truth is, of course, that while I can reluctantly concede the fact that I have lived 79 calendar years, I am not 79 years old. The operative word in “79 years old” is “old,” and I refuse to accept that I am old. I will never be 79 years old, no matter what the calendars say.
That reality and I are barely on speaking terms is a given fact. I've become something of an expert at avoiding it. As the years add up, reality keeps trying to show its control by placing reflective surfaces in my path unexpectedly, to make its point, like someone jumping out from behind a tree and yelling “Boo!” I avoid reflective surfaces whenever possible, and slowly retreat further into the world of my mind, which knows no age.
What I would undoubtedly would have considered maudlin or negative thinking twenty years ago—what you may well consider this blog entry to be—I can now accept. Not maudlin, not negative, not self-pity...simple fact. Every human life, yours included, has a point of no return, where there are fewer years ahead than behind. None of us knows when that point of no return is crossed. I've been blessed to have lived as long as I have, and I want to live as many more as possible. But I know that however many may be left, and as much as I would have it be otherwise, at 79 my point of no return was crossed some time ago.
And with age comes a certain...stoicism.
Edith Piaf's “Je ne Regrette Rien” has always been one of my favorite songs. Unfortunately, looking back at the previous 78 years (78 years? See? Just writing that gave me a shock!) I have an awful lot of regrets; things I wish with all my soul I could go back and change, or avoid altogether. But of course I can't. I have always expected more of life and of myself than either of us could be expected to provide.
Every life is a balance. Joy/sorrow, love/loss. As an extreme romantic, I long for things to always be positive, for the handsome prince to find his counterpart and live happily ever after. The fact that life doesn't work that way has tended to embitter me. As a result, when looking back on all the sorrows and losses of my life, they tend to stand out more sharply than the loves and joys simply because I expect the loves and joys and am disproportionately hurt by anything less.
I've said and mean with all sincerity that I view the inevitable end of my journey, whenever it comes, not with the fear and sorrow of death itself, but with the sorrow of knowing that life will go on without me and there will be so very many roads I will not walk, so many adventures I will not have, so many books I will not write or read, so much beauty, so much happiness, so much love that I will not experience. I am infinitely grateful for everything I've been given. I just want more.
I guess that's what they call “life.”