Old age is no longer just a theory.
My own, personal dotage is here, in real time. It’s hard to comprehend.
In a short couple of months, I’ll turn 60. I can’t argue anymore that I’m still within the upper reaches of middle age.
I’m now watching Social Security, Medicare and (if I’m lucky) retirement sneer at me and beckon, “Hurry on in. You didn’t think you’d reach this destination, did you? Take your pick — any walker you’d like.”
Well, no. No thanks.
The other day I was sitting on the sofa with two of my grandkids. My oldest granddaughter, 7, was trying to take a selfie of the three of us with her iPad.
When the tablet’s screen displayed our images, she said, surprised, “Papa, you look like a … grandpa!” As if she’d never noticed.
Her younger sister agreed. “Yeah, your hair is white, like an old man’s.”
I hope I get another 20 years or more to romp with those kids, but I’m now at the age when you never know.
Of course, in truth, at any age you never know.
But I’ve reached the age at which you know you never know.
You know that because you’ve lost so many people you loved — your grandparents, your aunts and uncles, your parents, your long-time friends and, in my case, even a wife.
Most of the people I counted as the permanent lodestones of my life, from whom I long took comfort and understood my place in the world, are gone.
I’m not the kid of the family anymore. I’m an orphan. And, weird at it seems, I’m the patriarch.
Occasionally I feel almost as if I’m living today among near-strangers.
I’m aging, but I’ve got a new wife. My son is a grown man not far from middle age himself, not the blond little boy who used to curl up with me in my recliner on Saturday mornings to watch TV. I’ve got five grandkids, brand new souls only recently planted on Earth.
I love them all. I wouldn’t trade them for a billion-dollar Powerball ticket.
But the life I’m experiencing today isn’t the life I lived for a half-century, and isn’t one I ever envisioned myself having. This one takes new navigational skills.
It’s not a bad life. A few health problems aside, it’s very good.
It’s also very different.
That’s the main fact I’ve learned about aging: No matter how old you get, you keep having to start afresh. You solve some big part of life, you’re wholly comfortable, and then, oops, you’re not in that life anymore.
You find yourself once again searching the stars, attempting to discern who you are and why you’re here and how to get along now.
Here’s something else I’ve learned.
Anyway I read the actuarial charts, I’m closer to the end than I used to be, and I do feel my own mortality — yet I have nearly no fear of dying.
I’m not eager to go, mind you, but I’m not afraid, either.
Part of that equanimity comes from my faith, I’m sure.
A lot of it, though, comes from having been gripped so closely by death for such a long time. I’ve watched so many loved ones pass that my own dying doesn’t scare me. They did it; I can do it, too, I guess. And I prefer to believe great things await on the other side.
What jerks me awake at 3 a.m. are all the things that could befall me before then.
My Grandma Chestnut used to say, “Honey, you never know what shape you might get into before you leave this old world.”
Similarly, my Granny Prather said, “There’s lots of things worse than dying young.”
(Do you wonder where I get my morbid personality?)
That’s what bothers me. I don’t want to lose my mind or become a burden to my wife or lose anybody else I care about or outlive my retirement money. Those possibilities seem more present with me now than they used to.
Here’s the last thing I’ve learned about getting older. It’s a trick I play on myself.
When the night terrors come, as they are wont to do, I try to make the next day especially fine.
I grab my wife and kiss her flush on the mouth as if I were 18. Or I trade jokes with the grandkids about butt cracks and boogers, which are their favorite topics for jokes. Or I drive to Lexington and eat a plate of spicy Thai food as if I still had a functioning digestive tract, and then go buy myself a book or two or five. I sing loudly with the radio.
I remind myself that this day, right now, is an absolutely terrific day, and that today is, in fact, the only day anybody has anyhow, and that today is, in point of fact, the only day I ever had to begin with, even when I really was 18.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.