BACK IN THE EARLY 1960’S, before Mrs. R. and I were married, we were both employed at a large defense-oriented research firm in Northern California. The staff was a well-educated crew that tended to be very young and had vibrant social lives. They worked hard but they partied just as hard, they enjoyed good food and good wine, they played golf, they skied, they traveled, and on autumn Saturdays they tailgated before (and sometimes during) home football games at nearby Stanford University where many of them had studied.
After leaving the organization, Mrs. R. and I lost touch with all but a very few of them. Amanda Vaill once wrote a wistful book about the lives of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s expatriate friends, Gerald and Sara Murphy, which she entitled “Everybody Was So Young.” And that title captures the nostalgic vision I had over the years of our former colleagues.
Then, decades later, in the 1990’s, we attended the retirement party in Los Altos for one of them. We walked in the door of the restaurant, full of excitement, and were stunned. There were probably four dozen people there, all of whom we knew, but many we could not recognize. Gone were the full heads of hair and polished facial features. We noticed a few canes and walkers in the crowd, and Mrs. R.’s old boss for seven years, who was otherwise quite lucid and engaging, had had a stroke and couldn’t remember her.
Well what did we expect? That time would stand still for thirty years just so we could, for a few hours, relive our days as twenty-somethings?
SEVERAL YEARS AGO Mrs. R. and I saw “Quartet,” a thoroughly enjoyable British film about aging and the aged. (Films about old people, particularly those starring Dame Maggie Smith, seem to be a growth industry in Great Britain these days.) The main characters in “Quartet” — Wilf (Billy Connolly), Reggie (Tom Courtenay), Jean (Maggie Smith), and Cissy (Pauline Collins) — are all retired operatic vocalists, quite famous in their day, who live in the Beecham Home for Retired Musicians. Their attitudes towards aging differ sharply.
“I hate growing old,” Wilf says. “Hate every bloody minute of it.”
“I’m not like you, Wilf.” Reggie says. “I positively liked getting old … I’ve made the transition from opera star to old fogy with aplomb.”
Like Wilf, Jean, a retired world-famous diva and Reggie’s ex-wife, is being dragged kicking and screaming into her advanced years. “I don’t like it at all,” she complains.
But growing old is what people do, she is told. That fails to mollify her.
“You still have your future,” Cissy tells her.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of it — there just isn’t,” Jean replies. “It’s all been.”
I know a superb stage and film actor, Hal Landon, Jr., now in his seventies and as virile and active as many men several decades younger, who acknowledged he went through a period of denial about aging. “I went down and applied for Medicare today,” he told a group of us in an acting class he was teaching. “Me? Medicare? Awful. Just awful.”
Another time he said he couldn’t understand why, some years earlier, his agent kept sending him up to L.A. for auditions and when he got there, he found himself competing for roles with, in his words, “a bunch of old guys.” Then at one of those auditions he went on a bathroom break, and while washing his hands he got a good look at his visage in the mirror. A sudden epiphany swept over him. His agent was sending him there for these parts because in fact he had begun to look like one of the “old guys.”
It’s easy to tell if you have become old. Young female checkout clerks start calling you “Honey,” and asking if you need help carrying that tube of toothpaste you just bought out to your car. You purchase wine and the guy behind the counter,
thinking he is sooooo funny, says, “Are you sure you’re old enough to buy this?” Words like “cataract” and “prostate” enter your vocabulary. And, sadly, you begin to lose good friends. By the time you have experienced about a half dozen of these events, denial goes out the window, and you come to realize that you are, undeniably and unalterably, old. It’s as if you expect your official geezer decoder ring to arrive in the mail any day.
But as Reggie suggests to Wilf in “Quartet,” old age isn’t a terminus. It’s just a natural part of the journey that you can enjoy if you have some luck and play your cards right. We live among 17,000 retired people, and just as we weren’t all born with an equal amount of talents and abilities, neither do we all enter retirement with an equal amount of physical and mental tools. Because of illness, injury or age, not all of our original equipment, including our minds, functions the way we’d like it to.
THE MORE FORTUNATE AMONG US are able to create our own retirement regimen without the help of a recreation director for the superannuated. People write, they paint, they volunteer, they play golf and tennis, they act and sing and dance, they work as extras in movies and TV, they happily play the role of doting grandparent — the list goes on. But some are able to do only a few of these things. They suffer from a variety of physical ailments or, like Cissy in “Quartet,” they are in some stage of dementia.
A few, sadly, define themselves by what they can no longer do. But many more, including many with notable disabilities, anticipate a future full of not only what they can still do, but what new horizons they still plan to conquer. Their motto seems to be what Bette Davis once said: “Growing old isn’t for sissies.”
Journalist Regina Brett put it all in perspective. When she turned fifty, she wrote, “After having breast cancer at forty-one, I’m thrilled to grow old.”
Several years ago, in an incident I’ve mentioned in at least two other blog posts, I interviewed a group of buddies who have lunch several times a week at a senior center. As they ate they made plans for a bunch of things they were going to do that week.
“You guys are pretty busy,” I said.
“Once you start sitting in your chair and staring out the window,” one of them replied, “it’s all over for you.”
As that ubiquitous author Anonymous once said: “Growing old beats the alternative. Dying young only looks good in the movies.”