The Long and Short of It: Ramblings on the Desire to Live as Long as Possible.
I hear the oldest woman alive died. Again. That’s her prize. Assume the title, only to bestow the inevitability of its fate to the next woman in line. I ponder how far down that line I might be. If you line all of us ladies shoulder to shoulder, in order of earthly eviction how many miles down the line do we go before I am the oldest one standing? I try not to be distracted by how long the line is in general (we would wrap around the planet 41.37 times according to Chat GPT, the line stretching beyond you in perpetuity, and only getting shorter ahead of you). I put away the thought: it might be true that we each have a finite number of days left on earth, but we all know there’s no pecking order to such things like long-life or death.
On one side of my family, reaching the age of 65 is considered a blessing; both my father’s parents were unable to reach the milestone, and lived in near poverty most of their lives. My mother’s tobacco merchant father, who sampled his own stock twelve times a day for eight decades and lived through Japanese occupation, surprised even himself, living past 93. Genetics play a hand (scientists are drumming up synthetic gene assistance for those less endowed), but lifestyle factors, community, olive oil, sunshine and living in a blue zone, all contribute to longevity. Maybe the promise of getting a birthday message at 100 from HRH King Charles III and the Queen Consort is enough for some subjects of the Commonwealth to keep calm and carry on (the Queen Mother who lived to 101 was no exception to the centenarian celebration, receiving a letter from her dear Lilibet.) A side note; the bar is way lower in the United States, anyone turning a plucky 80 gets a letter from POTUS. Live long enough and you could even get letters from a few of them.
Personally, I think long life is a gift. Most people probably agree, up to a certain point. When is that point? It’s relative and largely dependent on your outlook; I’m reminded of a hilarious scene in After Life where Ricky Gervais’s character is interviewing a woman who recently turned 100 in his small town. Her misanthropic foul-mouthed gruff clearly knows where her ‘point’ was, some place before the physical and emotional pain set in. Her situation worsened by the limited options on how to live out old age enjoyably. Clearly the assisted-living group-home vibe is not her cup of tea. So naturally, I wonder if the alternative of living with loved ones is any better. I, for one, haven’t found any research that suggests filial piety extends long life or is any more enjoyable for the aging, despite the hints my Chinese mother drops.
I dedicate one of my finite hours on this earth to reading about the lives of two women who were the oldest on earth at one point: Lucille Randon then Kane Tanaka. As a result, I recall a play at Julliard I attended of a woman who found herself in their very position. She outlived everyone she ever loved: friends, parents, siblings, two husbands, children, and almost all of her grandchildren—the main character was rueful. Why had she been the one to live long enough to mourne everyone else? The young student who played her captured the grief of her achievement well. I cried a little. I still think of the play (the name of which I cannot track down) at any mention of the ‘oldest person’ on earth. What if I live so long, that I too am the last of my people left? That ‘oldest woman alive’ crown is bound to carry an inherent loneliness to it.
Nonetheless, I still obsess over the recipe for a long life. I’m not alone; the subject is clinically studied, and people are intensely curious. It’s said that the first person to reach 150 years old purportedly walks the earth at this very moment. Maybe you know them, maybe it’s you. Maybe it’ll be centi-millionaire Bryan Johnson, who employs a team of 30 doctors and applies a yearly budget of $2M to reverse the signs of aging in his body. No crazy accidents or daredevil Titanic expeditions withstanding, the biological signs are already looking good. Obviously, that approach isn’t tenable for those of us interested in delaying death who are living paycheck to paycheck (me), and as such, reduced to snorting a concoction of Turmeric, Resveratrol and other life-extending anti-oxidants. And to what end? Isn’t humanity imminently headed for a doomsday ending where mother nature, sick of its abusive relationship with us, detoxes humanity from her system, and we all perish in a mass deep-water cleansing? (Pause here while I reminisce on Kevin Costner’s greatest action film of all time, Waterworld) I doom-scroll: Is there an ethical, environmentally safe age when a person’s use of the world’s resources is maxed out, deemed enough, and we exit bequeathing the next generations with whatever’s left? Or is a long life not all selfish and merely exploration? What meaning and perspective might be gained in living long enough not to repeat history? What might we ask of those who have lived through our past mistakes as a society? What can they teach us if we listen?
Personally, understanding my own purpose, contributing to others’, human connection, and being kind to myself and others may be the only recipe to life I’ll have, long or short. Did Kane and Lucille mean to live on and on, or did happenstance force it? I like to think that, with all things record-breaking, there was something more driving it: the simplicity of knowing that our one and only precious life is worth living a long time for.
Josie’s journey into writing started as an outspoken advertising executive with a penchant for being fired. She is currently completing her MFA at Antioch LA and is now building a yet-to-be-published body of work of fallible women, mothers, and executives guilty of punching up, falling down, and living life messily. Still in marketing, Josie currently manages a team of ninety Zoomers and Millennials, providing a constant source of insightful material.