When I heard of Nora Ephron’s sudden (as we thought at the time) death a few weeks ago, I was shocked just like everyone else. It didn’t occur to me until a few days later that the fact that she was exactly one year older than I am might have contributed to the huge impact her death was having on me.
I was already having a hard time coming to terms with my latest Big Birthday.
I’ve had trouble with milestone birthdays before. When I was about to turn 35, I wasn’t ready to be middle-aged. I was a college student, after all, resuming my education after a 15-year child-raising hiatus. I was learning Italian, looking forward to reading Dante, but the first line of Inferno was a literary knockout punch. “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” (in the middle of the journey of our life), Dante began. He was 35 at the time he was writing. All I could think of was that I had scaled a steep hill and from then on, it would be downhill all the way. (And now, 35 years later, I’ve reached the endpoint of Dante’s falling trajectory.)
Forty wasn’t nearly so bad. I worked furiously that spring, because I’d said I would kill myself if I turned 40 without a B.A. I made it and went off to grad school, where my colleagues were only slightly older than my children and a few of my professors were younger than I was—disconcerting, to say the least. Yet some of the women envied me because I’d had my children and could now devote myself to my studies without listening to the relentless ticking of my biological clock. As the semesters went by, age didn’t seem to matter. Three days a week I lived as a grad student, sharing notes, woes, and dinner with my fellow students.
Ten years later, at the half-century mark, I was an assistant professor. My colleagues were now my age, but they were tenured department heads. I became a grandmother. That was hard to admit. I taught Alexander to call me—certainly not Grannie!—Lala, the name I’d given my Cuban grandmother.
Sixty was tough. Though I had plenty of energy and ambition, I just didn’t like the sound of “sixty.”
I went back to grad school to prepare for a fourth career when I was 63. Learning to be a journalist at Columbia was very challenging. Of course, I was the oldest in my class (though not the oldest student ever), but almost everybody else was struggling to keep up too. Like them, I covered my beat and wrote deadline stories, working from early morning to late at night: on the street, in the lab, and at the computer. Like the others, I pulled the occasional all-nighter. After that, 65 didn’t faze me. If I could get through the J-School trial by fire, I could face anything.
Until the 70 tsunami slammed into me.
My husband eased the transition to what I could only imagine would be the onset of a decrepit, doddering, drooling old age by proposing a party (which I summarily and immediately declined) or a trip. “Let’s go somewhere we’ve never been,” I said, so we went to China with four other people.
I’ve enjoyed extraordinary luck all my life. I’ve always been healthy. But around my last birthday (I still can’t say the number), ominous signs haunted me.
The trip to China began well. On the second day, I walked farther along the Great Wall than anyone else. On the other hand, that’s because I got lost. How could I lose my way on a linear wall? By walking right by the tower where we began and not realizing until several towers later that the surroundings were not quite familiar; by following a sign that pointed to the way down and not realizing until I’d descended quite far along a staircase cut into the rock that I was walking down the mountain, not returning to the cable car. (What does that say about my mental alertness?) That was three days before my birthday.
Six days later, I was coming out of a museum and was completely focused on changing to sunglasses, holding both cases, both pairs of glasses, and a camera in my hands. I never saw the steps. So I descended suddenly and very quickly, ending up in a heap. Though I was able to get up without help and walk about 500 meters, by evening my foot hurt so much that it couldn’t support my weight. I spent the next three days in a wheelchair. An invalid. Oh my God—already? On the bright side, my biceps were capable of hoisting me up into and down from the bus unaided. (All that unpleasant exercise seemed to be paying off at last.) But one night at dinner, that little pebble in my mouth turned out to be half of one of my bicuspids.
These signs were more than worrisome.
They were not good at all. Was The Birthday responsible for these mishaps—these signs of falling apart—coming in such rapid succession?
I had survived 35, weathered 50 and pretty much sailed through 60. But 70?
I’m strong—on a plane, I lift my luggage up and into the overhead bin. I very rarely get sick and have no chronic ailments. But that’s not quite the complete picture. I can’t wear high heels or any pretty shoes at all without suffering sheer agony. When I wear “sensible” and “sturdy” (read: “old-lady”) shoes, however, I feel I can walk forever. Every morning the jumble of hair on my hairbrush stings me like a knife wound. What’s happening to what was my thick, strong hair? Will I lose it all and will I wear a wig? Yet, I can do just about everything I ever did. Except that I fall. I pay close attention now when going down stairs.
My memory? That’s another story. My short-term memory is practically nonexistent. Fortunately, we’re living in the “Google years,” as Nora Ephron wrote. With our smart phones and computers, we can usually retrieve that evanescent word, fact, or name from the tip of the tongue.
Google doesn’t help, however, when I interrupt my work and go to another room, only to get there and wonder what it was that I needed. I spend at least half my day looking for my keys or my glasses or my clipboard or my ring and just about everything else, because I have absolutely no recollection of where I last saw them. And it’s going to get worse … ?!!
I’ve been thinking about Ephron. She knew she was dying when she wrote I Remember Nothing, so she had nothing to lose by revealing how old she was. She was a celebrity anyway, and her age was common knowledge. Besides, no one could deny her lifetime of accomplishments.
Instead, I worry a great deal about the negative opinions and assumptions I assume people will make about me, once they know my age. I know I’m the same person, but will they? Ageism still persists, especially for women.
I’m in denial. I can’t admit that I am 70. There, I’ve said it, but it’s hard to believe, let alone accept. So I was thrashing around until Nora came to my aid with her humorous, wistful, and wise reflections on aging. She was able to laugh in spite of her pain and knew she could make other people laugh with her. On rereading I Feel Bad About My Neck, I understood, even better than I had the first time, that laughter, like writing itself, mitigates suffering. If you can laugh at something, you scale it down to a manageable size.
I was wrong at 35—my life wasn’t a downhill slide afterwards. Not at all. In fact, it became increasingly better, even as I completed the arc of Dante’s course. But 70 isn’t 35. Maybe if I exercise more, eat better, sleep adequately—maybe I can avoid some of the worst of the deterioration. Maybe I can hold onto my mind— what’s left of it—for another decade or two. It has been done. It takes will and good genes. I believe I have the latter; I’m working on the former.