It’s a cool July morning, with the Pacific fog sitting plump as a grey hen on the far hills. I love the way the mist hides us here in the flatlands above San Francisco Bay, as if we were in a time out of time. When the sun breaks through around noon, I tap my niece Catherine’s number on my cell phone and let it ring for a while. It’s 3 p.m. in Rhode Island. Ava’s still at day camp and the baby might be asleep. No answer. Ten minutes later I try again. Someone picks up and I hear Cat yelling in the background, calling goodbye. Now she’s shouting into the phone, “Hi, Auntie Sherry! I’m just finishing my Filipino stick fighting lesson!”
Cat is my goddaughter, my brother Howard’s second-born. At 34, with two kids, a terrific husband and her work as an acupuncturist, she has a life that seems expressible mainly in exclamation marks. Cat is the child of my heart, the girlfriend/daughter I never had. She and I tend to see the world pretty much through the same lenses. Our conversations reflect this, generally sluicing through the rush of our lives, washing out the gold along with assorted detritus. But once in a while, the pace slows down. Like now.
“How’s Paul,” she asks casually, so casually I know she knows the answer.
“We had to call an ambulance on the weekend.” I tell her how we were walking on Deer Island when Paul sat down hard on the ground with a pain in his chest that sent me running home for the car. And how it turned out okay after all. No heart attack. On Tuesday, I tell her, we’re going into the city for his third stent surgery. I know I’m using the odd locutions that I can’t seem to avoid, like “they’re going to try and open the right artery again” as if an anonymous “they” composed of all the doctors and nurses and consultants in the big Kaiser hospital on Geary Street are aligning in a communal entity that will help my beloved husband’s heart beat steadily again. Cat asks a few acupuncture-doctor-type questions and then comes back to being my friend. “You must be very worried,” she says. “It must be really hard.”
Last year was hard, I tell her, when Paul slumped on the bathroom floor at 6 a.m. and eight firemen thundered up the stairs carrying a stretcher and some heavy equipment. My own heart froze then, shutting down against the fear. As I followed the sirening ambulance to the E.R. in my car, I talked to myself: Don’t have an accident. Remember to breathe. Pay attention. You’re okay, you can do this. Like when I was 17 and the firemen ran down our front stairs with my father on the stretcher looking, like Paul, pale as old flannel and scared.
Paul turned out to have food poisoning that first time, I tell Cat. I brought him home, a little green and chagrined at all the fuss. And the second and third times the ambulance came, it was angina but not an attack. Not deadly. We’re getting used to it, I say, going to the hospitals. Our bodies are more vulnerable now.
“Getting old sounds awful,” she bursts in furiously. “Awful!”
I stop. She’s not my girlfriend. All this talk about doctors and ambulances and getting old and vulnerability is upsetting her. Something inside me sits down, like when you’re a kid and you’re out of breath from running and you find yourself a curb and just sit down.
Silence opens up when you sit down like this. Stillness comes in. I sit down here, in the gap between the worlds, in the slice of eternity between the world of thirty-year-olds—in the midst of diapers and summer camp and building a career and finding time for sex—and my world now, the world of Paul and me and our sixty- and seventy- and almost eighty-year-old friends and colleagues.
It’s not awful, I say finally. But I feel wordless. Getting old is so far from awful that I don’t know where to begin. I want to tell this to Cat. I would need a lot of time, I want to tell her, and I’d need you not to be in a hurry. I’d need you not to be 3000 miles away and minutes from having to pick up your baby and get Ava from camp. Maybe I could tell you if we were walking by the ocean the way we did on the day your grandfather died, and maybe a cloud of monarch butterflies would envelop us as they did then and help us find the fierce, honest words we need to understand each other.
I say only, “Getting old is different from what you think.”
“Oh yeah, probably is,” she says. “Love you. Let’s talk again soon.”
I don’t want Cat to think getting old is awful. I can’t bear for her to be afraid of what lies ahead, to be trying, at 45 or 50 or 60, to be “younger next year.” I don’t care if she bleaches her teeth or colors her hair or gets botox or pearlescence or whatever the face treatments will be called by then. That’s not what’s important. I want her to know what growing old is like on the inside.
What if I say, “Getting old is an adventure so exquisite that it breaks me open every single day”? What will she think of when I say “adventure”? When I lived on the side of an active volcano in Ecuador four years ago and hiked into the rain forest and hurtled through the Andes on the night bus to Otavalo, Cat and her brothers were thrilled for me. But this growing old that is a change in the texture of life itself —who in their thirties would call this an adventure?
Most mornings Paul sits at the breakfast table in his red bathrobe, his reading glasses making his eyes look big as he clicks through his e-mail and sips coffee from his big white mug. I sit across from him, drinking jasmine tea from my red thermos and watching the blue jays fly in to fight for a place at the bird feeder. What could be more boring? And yet, well, I just have to laugh at the truth of it: in these most ordinary moments, the universe opens up. Universes, really. Because it’s not the events that catch my attention, not those encapsulated, separate phenomena: “blue jays flying in,” or “Paul drinking coffee.” It’s the texture of the living moments, each … what should I call it?
If I say “each instant” or “each moment,” you’ll get the sense of a separate package of time, of some event wrapped up like a birthday present or a stinking fish in newspaper or even old kitty litter, something you want or don’t want or really don’t want. But it’s not like this anymore, not like a package you have an opinion about. Instead of instants or moments, here-and-nows unfurl like fiddlehead ferns till their tight little fists turn to feathery expanses of possibility.
Many days the truth of getting old feels like these unfolding possibilities. There isn’t one thing missing or any place I’d rather be than here. Can I tell this to Catherine? I couldn’t have told it to myself at thirty, or even forty or fifty.
I honestly never expected that simply being where I am and who I am would be enough, and that enough would feel like overflowing. It’s not only that I didn’t expect to feel this way in my sixties. I didn’t imagine I could ever feel like this.
This seems like a secret I should be keeping. It’s not just hard to communicate. The nature of such experiences feels private. Not just untranslatable but unsayable.
I told this to my friend Jim. Read what the great poets write late in life, he told me, and quoted a few lines from W.S. Merwin:
it is the late poems
that are made of words
that have come the whole way
That’s what I want, I said, to come the whole way through. I ventured, “It’s a great thing we’re living now, isn’t it? Getting old, I mean.”
Jim flashed a conspiratorial smile, “It’s a new frontier.” Then he told me a dream he’d had the night before. Stick figures moved in a slow dance of controlled ecstasy. As they danced, their heads and faces shifted through different forms, sometimes skulls and sometimes just empty shrouds and sometimes sheaves of wheat. “I was a little surprised that I wasn’t scared,” he said. “But actually, I was intrigued at the solemnity of it all and I felt I was learning something fascinating.”
Aging seems to be like this in its essence. Leaving nothing out—not death, not emptiness and not whatever harvest may come. Not pulling back half-grown at middle age, but letting myself unfurl in an ecstatic dance I’m just beginning to get the hang of.