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Thursday, June 06, 2024

The Beauty of Embracing Aging

The Beauty of Embracing Aging

A black and white close-up of three weathered hands.
Larry Fink for The New York Times

“As Evelyn Couch said to Ninny Threadgoode in Fannie Flagg’s “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe”: “I’m too young to be old and too old to be young. I just don’t fit anywhere.”

I think about this line often, this feeling of being out of place, particularly in a culture that obsessively glorifies youth and teaches us to view aging as an enemy.

No one really tells us how we’re supposed to age, how much fighting against it and how much acceptance of it is the right balance. No one tells us how we’re supposed to feel when the body grows softer and the hair grayer, how we’re supposed to consider the craping of the skin or the wrinkles on the face that make our smiles feel unfortunate.

The poet Dylan Thomas told us we should “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” that “old age should burn and rave at close of day.” He died, sadly, before turning 40.

For those of us well past that mark, rage feels futile, like a misallocation of energy. There is, after all, a beauty in aging. And aging is about more than how we look and feel in our bodies. It’s also about how the world around us plows ahead and pulls us along.

I remember a call, a few years ago, from a longtime friend who said it looked as if her father was about to pass away. I remember meeting her, along with another friend, at her father’s elder care facility so she wouldn’t have to be alone, and seeing the way her tears fell on his face as she stroked his cheeks and cooed his name; the way she collapsed in the hallway on our way out, screaming, not knowing if that night would be his last.

He survived, and has survived several near-death experiences since, but I saw my friend’s struggle with her father’s health difficulties as a precursor to what might one day be my struggle with my parents’ aging and health challenges. And it was.

Soon after that harrowing night at the elder care facility, my mother, who lives alone, suffered a stroke. Luckily, one of my brothers was having breakfast with her that morning and, noticing that her speech was becoming slurred, rushed her to the emergency room.

On the flight to Louisiana, I tried in vain to remain calm, not knowing what condition she would be in when I arrived, not knowing the damage the stroke had done. When I finally laid eyes on her, it was confirmed for me how fortunate we were that my brother had been alert and acted quickly. My mother would fully recover, but the image of her in that hospital bed — diminished from the commanding, invincible image of her that had been burned into my mind — shook me and has remained with me.

In that moment, I was reminded that my mother was in the final chapter of her life, and that I was moving into a new phase of mine.

That is one of the profound, emotional parts of aging: assuming a new familial role. Recognizing that my brothers and I were graduating from being the uncles to being the elders.

And that shifting family dynamic exerts itself on both ends, from above and below. This year, my older son turned 30. There’s no way to continue to consider yourself young when you have a child that age. He isn’t a father yet, but it has dawned on me that by the time I was his age, I had three children and my marriage was coming to an end. In fact, by the time I was his age, all of my mother’s grandchildren had been born.

No matter how young you may look or feel, time refuses to rest. It forges on. I’m now right around the age my parents were when I first considered them old.

I’m not sure when the world will consider me old — maybe it already does — but I do know that I’m no longer afraid of it. I welcome it. And I understand that the best parts of many books are their final chapters.

The actress Jenifer Lewis, appearing on the nationally syndicated radio show “The Breakfast Club,” once remarked: “I’m 61. I got about 30 more summers left.” Since hearing those words, I’ve thought of my own life in that way, in terms of how many summers I might have left. How many more times will I see the leaves sprout and the flowers bloom? How many more times will I spend a day by the pool or enjoy an ice cream on a hot day?

I don’t consider these questions because I’m worried, but because I want to remind myself to relish. Relish every summer day. Stretch them. Fill them with memories. Smile and laugh more. Gather with friends and visit family. Put my feet in the water. Grow things and grill things. I make my summers count by making them beautiful.

I have no intention of raging against my aging. I intend to embrace it, to embrace the muscle aches and the crow’s feet as the price of growing in wisdom and grace; to understand that age is not my body forsaking me but my life rewarding me.

Aging, as I see it, is a gift, and I will receive it with gratitude.

Charles M. Blow is an Opinion columnist for The New York Times, writing about national politics, public opinion and social justice, with a focus on racial equality and L.G.B.T.Q. rights. @CharlesMBlow  Facebook

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