I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet. –Sylvia Plath
Age is a very sensitive and difficult issue to address. Recently I’ve had a number of people tell me how very lucky I am to be in my twenties, in the proverbial “golden years” of my life. Although I agree with them that I am lucky, I disagree that these are the golden years (and would even argue that they don’t qualify for silver or bronze, either).
On Tuesday morning I met a very sweet ninety-five year old man at the gym. From his waist up he was crooked and bent, his spine formed a disproportionately squashed “s”-shape, and both of his wiry legs had a sizable limp–which actually ended up almost normalizing his gait. As he hobbled slowly towards me, I watched him grimace with each step, his face seemingly registering pain slightly late, just a nanosecond after each foot hit the ground.
He sat down next to me in the cafe area, heaved a heavy sigh, and laughed to himself as he said, “Dammit, getting old sure isn’t for pussies…”
Thrown by the absurdity of this statement and unsure of how to appropriately respond, I just smiled at him and nodded. When in doubt, smile and nod. But he stayed and I stayed, both silently sitting with that noisy thought. A couple of minutes later we started small-talking and then later, large-talking. The real steak-and-wine kind of conversation, if you will. It became immediately apparent that he had lived a rich life, full of love and friendship, and as he told his stories I couldn’t help but envy him.
Here was a man that had established a complete life for himself. He had honorably served our country in two wars, worked hard in numerous different jobs, raised a family, and by the warmth in his voice, it was apparent that this man still found joy in each day.
He told me about the love of his life, Betty, who had died nine years earlier. About his sons Paul and John who both went to college to get degrees and who now had their own jobs and families. About his seven beautiful grandchildren. With a proud voice he rolled through his stories and I, too, felt proud of his life.
After a while, he got up to go swimming and I watched him limp away and thought about his life, and my own. I have never dealt with the physical decay that he has. The natural but depressingly erosive process of time on the body. I have never dealt with mortality as intimately as he has– losing close loved-ones, or dear friends. But I also have never felt the deep abounding joy of having children. I have never been secure professionally or truly felt gratified in a career. In my youthful, healthy body that older people envy and tell me to appreciate there is a maelstrom of insecurity, indecisiveness, and fear. Like Ms. Plath, I sit at the bottom of a fig tree and starve while I wonder which branch of life to choose.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a multitude of reasons this is a great age to be. But there are also a number of things that I would instantly change. Being perpetually broke, for one… But I guess that feature can come uninvited at any age. Regardless, I think we can all agree that every age can be hard. My one hope is that with age, we simply become better equipped to deal with it.