For my sixth birthday, my mother gave me Now We Are Six, by A. A. Milne. She took me onto her lap, opened the book, and began:
When I was one, I had just begun.
When I was two, I was nearly new.
When I was three, I was hardly me.
When I was four, I was not much more.
But now I am Six. I’m as clever as clever.
So I think I’ll be six for ever and ever.
As usual when trying to remember childhood experiences, it’s hard to identify what I felt, exactly, upon hearing her read those words aloud. All I can say is that it generated within me an undifferentiated happiness and inarticulate sense of special good fortune Surely I understood, at least in theory, that I wouldn’t be six for ever and ever, but the poem entered my mind intact and whole, undivided by skepticism or analytical thought. It was telling me that to be six years old was to be lucky. To be six was wonderful.
How far off was ten? Very far. And 20, or 30? Those numbers weren’t relevant to anything real. Beyond them lay the far-off mist of Adulthood, an inaccessible place as safely removed from me as the moon. It would take as long to arrive in that science-fiction future as to travel backwards in time to Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America.
My father’s armchair in Connecticut gave us a spin, the planet whirled through the blackness of space, and we were in a supermarket in Los Angeles. My husband and children were in Jerusalem and I was visiting my mother, in her eighties. Ill and frail, she rested one hand on the metal shopping cart, to steady herself as we inched along.
I had just steered our little parade out of the Dairy section and was heading for Organic Produce when for no particular reason, and without warning -- like a malevolent shooting star arrowing down from outer space -- an amazing thought struck: In 13 years I’ll be 60.
I slowed, and stopped.
The Southern California shoppers paused in sympathy, suspended in an ellipsis of time.
All along the air-conditioned aisles of Whole Foods Supermarket, the Southern California shoppers paused in sympathy, suspended in an ellipsis of time. My mother kept moving forward for a few seconds, then noticed, and turned around questioningly.
I wouldn’t, shouldn’t tell her what had just occurred to me. How could I do it to her? I was her baby, the baby of the family. That was my identity.
Hours and years dissolved in the ether. One morning -- an exultant, lovely morning when the unsuspecting sun had risen as innocently as ever and my own baby had gotten engaged the night before -- I boarded a #2 bus, asked the driver for a new bus card, and was looking on absent-mindedly when I realized that he was punching a hole in a reduced-fare seniors’ ticket. My soul staggered. I could have collapsed in the aisle. I said, “No, a regular ticket please,” then proceeded on back, nose in the air. I needed a seat by myself, away from peoples’ eyes, to absorb the blow.
Outside the dirty windows where Jerusalem’s streets were floating by, springtime was blooming in pink and white and green. It couldn’t be! Could it? Was I a…senior citizen?
For unknown reasons, at that moment it was some shimmery, unidentifiable fragment of earliest adolescence -- when all the yearning for life and the mystery of existence had first beckoned -- which flickered and stirred incongruously within.
How strange and how remarkable – and unfair! -- that trees get to be reborn, one season after another, their old gray branches bursting to life year in, year out.
That driver, was he young or old? I didn’t notice! So maybe he didn’t get a good look at me, either -- maybe he didn’t see me at all! And anyway, my birthday was still two months off! Bus drivers should know better -- they should be trained! -- not to ask any female if she qualifies for the reduced fare, especially one he’s not sure of. If he needs to ask, then he shouldn’t!
Because it’s such a one as she who still occupies the indeterminate midlife zone where self-delusion flowers, forever young.
* * *
When my father died in 1990, one condolence card especially comforted me, and I've saved it all these years. It’s propped up on the shelf overlooking my desk, so I'm looking at it right now.
The picture is a black-and-white photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge, in mist and fog, vanishing into the distance, and it was from my friend Naomi Adir, in Brighton Beach. The note inside, written in her careful, deliberate hand, reads as follows: "I was shocked to learn of your father’s departure from this life. He has crossed the bridge we must all cross one day."
That’s all, a few words, yet they were like a rope of rescue, a line of light lowered into the sea in which I was thrashing wildly around, struggling in the wake of our cataclysmic disaster. I’d been aware, of course, that human lives come to an end, but hadn’t known it could happen to one of my parents, and didn’t know that I didn’t know. My father’s unanticipated “departure,” as Naomi Adir put it, kept hitting me again and again as if for the first time, like some horrible aberration, an impossible reversal of the natural order, a horrific violation of the way things had to be. Without him, the world wasn’t the world.
She was saying that death is survivable.
The card informed me of something: we die. It would take me four years to climb up onto dry land again, and stand upright, but even today, two decades later, her remarkably obvious observation -- that death is universal and unavoidable -- is something to hold onto. It contains, by implication, two unarticulated corollaries: first, that losing someone important has happened one way or another to anyone who’s ever lived, and secondly (less than a promise, perhaps, but at least she was hinting) she was saying that death is survivable. One day, the earth would return to its normal orbit, and I to my life.
* * *
However unanticipated my father’s death from a heart attack, my mother’s gradual transformation into an old lady ten years later, by way of illness, and her subsequent, precipitous fall into extreme old age, were no less shocking. To see Mommy changing visibly from visit to visit -- the strongest, most determined, most willful woman in the world growing frail in body and mind -- was to finally start to fathom that the past had passed, and that I, too, must be getting older.
The first information to this effect had actually reached me long before, in my early 20s, when one day, in our station wagon’s brutally sunny rearview mirror, an odd little horizontal hyphen appeared on my forehead. I brushed it off thoughtlessly with the flick of a finger, then saw to my amazement that it was imprinted into my skin!
Eventually every birthday -- especially the round-numbered turning points of the decades -- would be like a bell tolling my name. You call yourself an adult? What have you accomplished in life? How can you justify the year that’s just gone!? As a girl I had assumed that getting married would prove my worth, and then, as a young woman, dreamed of the children who would be my redemption. Then the horizon shifted. I longed to get my writing published; seeing my name in print would tell me I was important. Later, I believed that grandchildren would create a real and enduring legacy.
The reality is something else. I have to keep starting over again from scratch virtually every day, sometimes moment by moment, losing and discovering my purpose in life between every dawn and dusk. There’s no achievement, no state of well-being, which stays put. Happiness is never permanent, nor is self-respect.
* * *
Much to my disadvantage, my values and self-perception have been distorted by the secular environment and culture into which I was born, and there’s a way of thinking and talking about aging that to my mind has a distinctly American cast. Once you’re old enough to have lost card-carrying membership in the younger generation, suddenly “age is just a number,” “you’re only as old as you feel,” “it’s all in your mind,” “do not go gentle into that good night,” “40’s the new 30,” and “life begins at 50!” (or 60, or 70…wherever you’re holding.) Evidence of having aged is to be overcome -- if not by willpower -- then (if one has the money, and the audacity) by surgery, injection, or laser. The idea is to get control over one’s physical form, in the American version of “Who is mighty? He who rules over himself,” except that it’s not one’s character traits over which one gains mastery but one’s flesh and one’s limbs. Physical fitness is seen as an equivalent for good character.
Never mind that it’s the sheer terror of growing and looking older that fuels America’s immense cosmetics and cosmetic surgery industries; there’s an underlying impatience and distaste for anything less than an outwardly cheery, can-do attitude, and to surrender to bodily decline is regarded as a moral failure. People come out proudly and happily with declarations such as: “I feel just the way I did at 17!” And the fact is, it’s true, in many ways I do. But while 17 was for me a time of wonder and purity, poetry, awe, and sincere spiritual searching (not to mention health and energy) it was also a passageway of blind, ignorant self-centeredness.
It’s time to “lift up my eyes” and enter a larger life.
The prevailing attitude in secular society is one of Hellenistic identification of the human being with his physical self, but when it comes to aging, there’s an insistence on not identifying with the physical self. A grandmother isn’t expected to don an apron and knit 1, pearl 2, but rather, to don Nikes and attend her aerobics class.
The loss of youthful strength and beauty – like any other phenomena – is infinitely purposeful, and contains crucial messages for the human beings who experience or witness it. It makes it futile to rely for one’s identity on the sort of self-image which is reflected in other people’s eyes. Now our own eyes can do what they were created for: for seeing: to see the incomprehensibly wondrous Creation of which we ourselves are the key component. The balding and graying and spreading should be taken as a personal warning that our time for acquiring Torah and creating eternity is getting short; we have to get serious and get busy.
It’s time to “lift up my eyes” and enter a larger life (but not, I hope, in terms of dress-size!) in which other people’s joys and accomplishments will be as gratifying to me as my own. As much as I’ve always feared, and fear still, growing old, there’s something about it -- now that I’m actually getting there – surprisingly akin to liberation, like that of a child (a child of six, perhaps…times ten) adventuring out onto her discovery of the bigger world, and finding herself not in her mother’s arms, or her father’s – for they’re gone -- but in Hashem’s.
A longer version of this article appeared in Mishpacha Magazine.