I sit at the keyboard rapidly typing, as my student and I are brainstorming for his college essay. My fingers get tripped up on the simple words. I type “adn” for “and”. In the next sentence, “gaol” for “goal”. While reading it over, I catch my mistakes. “I feel like I’m becoming dyslexic in my old age,” I say with a laugh, but I’m not convinced it’s so funny. I did catch the errors, I think. I was typing fast. But I’ve always typed fast, and yesterday I switched around the letters in two other words as well.
I’m at dinner with my husband, and I’m telling him a story over a gorgeous medley of deep green veggies in red curry sauce. Suddenly, I stop mid-sentence. I’m trying to recall someone’s name. It should be on the tip of my tongue, but the name has lost its way on the journey from my brain to my mouth. I express my concern. “You’re overworked,” my honey says. He’s right. I’ve been burning the candle at both ends lately. This kind of thing happens to everyone, I think. I remember misplacing words when I was in my twenties, for goodness sake! But it’s happening to me more often recently than I’d like to admit.
Dyslexia. Word retrieval issues. Are they telling me something I need to pay closer attention to? Could it be the sugar I eat? The wine at dinner? My lack of sleep? One day, I’ll have to type it all onto WebMD and look it up. I’m not there yet.
I’m fifty-seven. I’ll be turning fifty-eight in December. Yes, I am growing older. My body isn’t what it used to be. But, now, my mind too? There are certain cognitive changes that happen when one grows older. They’re not all bad. I’m a much better reader, writer, mother, wife, friend than I’ve ever been. I have learned from my mistakes and can finally say with confidence that I’ve earned my wisdom stripes. But like everything else in life, it’s a balance. Most gains also come with a loss.
Over the last few years, I’ve become much more organized, better at staying on task, getting things done. Maybe that’s because I now know the value of time. The more of it we spend, the less we have left.
I can see myself back in my thirties, with three small kids, a small waist, a big minivan. I spent way too much time doing my hair and not enough time “doing” friendship. I spent too much time worrying what my neighbors would think about me, my kids, the dogs. Sure, I could wrap my leg behind my head (I used to work as a yoga instructor, after all), but I couldn’t wrap my head around peace. Instead, I stressed—both the small and the big stuff. I often mixed them up. Now I know that most stuff is neither big nor small. It’s just stuff. It’s all just stuff.
I am back in school now, working on my MFA in creative writing. When I’m on campus, I’m surrounded by young creatives. I love their energy, enthusiasm, their impressive work. I would never want to go back to my 20s or 30s, though. Not even for a day. But do I really want to move ahead?
Last month, I had lunch with a friend who is turning seventy this winter. Her father had dementia that began in his seventies. My friend made me promise that I would let her know if I ever thought her mind was beginning to slip. After seeing what her dad went through—and how her family suffered with him—she is certain that she does not want to live without her mind. I don’t either. But she won’t. She has developed an exit plan.
My mother, a few years before her death, had a small medical procedure—she had her pacemaker battery replaced. The anesthesia she was given was a form of fentanyl. “The Michael Jackson drug,” as she referred to it. My mother loved fentanyl. In fact, at some point during every future doctor visit, she would ask her physicians to prescribe her some. (Of course, they all refused.) Mom didn’t want fentanyl for recreational use. She wanted to save it in case her body or mind deteriorated past a point of no return. She wanted to “go out” in a peaceful, dreamy state, to go out “just like Michael”. My mom made me promise that when the time came I would get her the drug and give it to her. Thankfully, she died without needing any intervention on my part. I’m not sure what I would have done.
Promises. Exit plans. Is that what preparing for old age looks like today?
So … I know this piece is feeling pretty bleak right about now. And the world outside feels just the same way—to many of us. (Add to that, it’s fall—what I think of as the saddest season—the beginning of many a dark, cold, dreary day.) But do not feel the urgent need to call my therapist to alert her that I’ve sunken into a severe depression. I haven’t.
I’m actually in the best place I’ve been in my whole life. Looking back—and forward—makes me appreciate just where I am. I’ve adopted a “Buddha mind”—a living-in-the-moment-unattached perspective, and it is blissful—much of the time. I am no longer beholden to my children in that day-to-day parenting grind. There was beautiful magic while it lasted, but there is wonder and power in this space as well. Empty nest—what a misnomer! My nest is far from empty. I have new babies to nurture. My writing is one of them. My reading another. Political engagement, a third.
Time. The less I have in the future, the more I have right now. To dream, to think, to act. Fifty has proven a wonderful decade to be—and to become.
It’s true. My body and my mind have changed. My leg can no longer wrap around my head and I may have trouble recalling a name here and there or mix up a few letters when I type. But what I type makes me sing! I have made the time to create, to tend to relationships, to breathe. I find myself again at the feet of discovery—an awesome, powerful force. I am here, right here, right now. And I would not trade that for anything.
Diane Gottlieb writes fiction and nonfiction is currently working on a murder mystery with a social justice bent. She is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles and is the lead editor of creative nonfiction and a guest blogger for Lunch Ticket. Her work has appeared in Panoply and Lunch Ticket. You can also find her musings in her weekly blog WomanPause: Women Over 50 Rediscovering Ourselves at https://dianegottlieb.com.