I have cataracts, just like my old dogs who are dead now but not from cataracts, from other things that happen at the same time like extreme old age which I don’t have yet but I’m working on it, the cataracts giving me a hint of what is to come, the blurring of everything valuable into one big colorful stew like the lights on the San Diego freeway a few days ago where I resolved to drive like I lived there so I punched the gas going down the ramp and merged like a Las Vegas dealer hides the Ace of Hearts in a deck of cards he’s shuffling for tourists from Des Moines, the turn signal on my rented red car clicking like a timer, there is only so much time, I tell myself, make the most of it.
People have birthdays everyday, for heaven’s sake. So no reason to get all intense about it, right? Wrong.
71 is some business.
You try being 71 and come tell me birthdays are mundane, everyone has them, and, oh, age is just a number. 71 is some shit.
Earlier this week, I read in the morning paper about a colleague who had died. He was 82. I went in the shower and did the math. Just 11 years older than me. Just 11. I have shoes that are 11 years old. And they look like new. Time flies. Go figure.
It depressed me mightily, thinking about my dead colleague and my rapidly advancing age. I fell quickly into thinking like a patient with a terminal illness, my days are numbered, I thought, but whose aren’t? Living is a fatal illness when you get right down to it.
My dad died when he was 89. So if I’m my dad’s girl, I might live another 18 years. And I could be tooling around the two lanes just like him in his big Oldsmobile, hitting the hills in the Michigan countryside like Steve McQueen sending his Shelby Mustang flying over the hills of San Francisco. Honest to God, I sat in the passenger seat and heard the bottom of my dad’s car hit the pavement on the way down. He was no piker when it came to driving. All in, the man was, all in.
Growing up, I heard the term “hell bent for leather” a lot. My dad was often hell bent for leather but I hung back. It wasn’t my nature. First of all, you have to be pretty out there to be hell bent. And secondly, there’s a fair amount of risk implied being hell bent for leather and I never liked risk unless the odds fell entirely in my favor which is contrary to the whole notion of risk.
But I’ve changed. I’m not afraid of risk anymore. I don’t know what happened. The only thing different about me is age. A lot of age. A lot of age got me out from behind my safety glasses. And it’s great. I can see better and drive a lot faster.
The definition of “hell bent for leather” uses the term “recklessly determined” which I think is impossibly perfect and beautiful for what I want to be in my remaining minutes or 18 years. Recklessly determined to be healthy, to be strong, to make change, to show up, to drive like a wild woman who scares the passengers.
Tomorrow is my birthday. Here’s to 71. It’s the shit.
Aging means loving
Those bringing extra flashlights
Each step well chosen
We have another dying dog here.
Our beloved Minnie is on her last legs. She stumbles going around corners and down stairs, her back legs weak and spindly, sometimes going in the direction opposite her destination. It’s awful to watch.
On top of that, she has an ever-increasing dent on the right side of her head, the consequence, the vet said, of some neurological event which paralyzed that side of her face. As the muscles in her head and face atrophy, the dent deepens. She is still beautiful, this dog, despite all this.
Our old girl has an aura of patience and forbearance, tolerance and peace. And loyalty. She will always find where we are and lie down. She will wag her tail at the prospect of a walk and so we walk around the block slower than one might with a baby just learning to take her own steps.
So we are wrestling with the prospect of putting her down which we know we have to do and probably should have already done because we are treating her the way my grandmother treated her 99-year old mother, smoothing all the creases from her wrinkled sheets every twenty minutes.
A dying dog is a sad thing. But there are 10,000 sad things on any given day. This one is hardly the most tragic, it’s just the culmination of the relentless passage of time which, I suppose, is itself tragic if you’re in a mood to think of it that way.
I miss the young Minnie, the Minnie who ran on the beach and could fetch a stick in Lake Superior’s waves and bring it back to the shore holding it in her mouth like a cigar. I loved that dog, that fearless, quiet, sweet dog who swam in water just freed from the spring ice.
Who are we talking about here? You or the dog?
I don’t know what you mean.
You’re old enough to know that old dogs die.
Of course. It’s not my first rodeo.
Maybe it is. I guess it’s all about how you think about it.
What you realize when you get older, well, quite older, is that your life has boundaries, not in the way you might think, in terms of finite time, having a life sentence of short duration, a terminal illness, as it were, but in terms of your life rightfully becoming the thing of fenced-in pastures instead of limitless prairie, where your own horses graze and you don’t assume that all horses roaming the hills are yours to own, or capture, or manage in any way but rather you’ve gotten definite in your mind which horses truly belong to you and which you ought to let go because you never owned them, you were only kidding yourself, thinking you were anointed to decide which horses would graze where and with whom and from which river they would drink, that time is over, and it couldn’t have happened sooner, it could only happen now.
We were driving across town today and, just like that, my cochlear implant died. So instantly, in the space between one stoplight and another, I was back to being deaf.
Not hard of hearing, not hearing impaired, deaf except for maybe 10% of sound. We were picking up our son to go to lunch. He got in the car and I could hear murmurings of conversation between he and my husband but I looked out the window with no sense of what they were saying. None. In minutes, I had become cargo.
This has happened to me only once before. It was at a meeting to discuss kicking off a project to tell the stories of women who are homeless. The person I was meeting with, a long time colleague and wonderful person, was excited to move forward and I was encouraged by her endorsement, her great willingness to be the connection between me and women she was working with. She would be the person who would give me the legitimacy I would need to begin.
But then my implant died. Like today, it was a problem with the battery not charging adequately overnight. And so, right in the middle of our very intense conversation, I went deaf. And I couldn’t continue. I tried to explain but it is so peculiar to be a person whose life in the hearing world is so dependent on a battery. “I’m sorry but my battery died.”
My battery died so I have to run home because I have suddenly become a fawn in a forest full of cougars and bears because I can’t hear them sneaking up on me and I shouldn’t even be driving a car because I can’t hear people beeping their horns or a siren or know where the siren is coming from, I am a hazard to everyone, a witless, unknowing, unaware, incompetent former whole person.
It is just a technical problem.
At home, I switch to another battery, this one perfectly charged. The sound doesn’t immediately activate so I unscrew the battery and try again, all the while imagining that maybe something worse than a battery is broken. Maybe the mechanical stuff in my head is broken and within seconds I am on the operating table while they swap out the defective parts and put in new ones but this time they don’t have to drill a hole in my skull because it is still there, hidden behind my right ear.
All is well now, though. I hear myself typing on my keyboard. I hear the music downstairs, my chair creaking, and the dog standing to rearrange herself in her bed. I don’t take any of it for granted.
What a good trip gives me, oddly, is ambition.
And to feel ambitious is wonderful. I love the potential of ambition, the hopefulness of it, the sense that there are things still to be accomplished, the belief that I could do so many things if I decided to. It’s all in the deciding, not in anything else.
Ambition is powerful.
Here’s why this good trip to Alaska gives me ambition. I only have with me the possessions I can carry. I have my jeans and a hoodie and a lot of socks and three pairs of boots and my parka. I don’t have my office, the shelves full of books, and the drawers full of papers. I don’t have the ice on the driveway, the aged dog on the carpet, people wanting me to show up places. So I’m unencumbered except for my traveling companion with whom I am fine being encumbered.
Seeing people doing different things than I have done gives me ambition. The last Iditarod musher to leave the chute yesterday, #53, is a 67-year old nurse practitioner. She’s run the race before, never won, never placed, but she has finished. She’s 67 and she’s going on a 1,000 dog sled journey by herself, stopping at checkpoints for brief periods where she alone has to care for her dogs, and then taking off in the dark across rivers and mountains alone. So, yeah, she makes me feel ambitious, she makes me feel strong, and not old enough to have already reached my full potential.
Imagining how it would be to live in Alaska makes me feel ambitious, knowing that I could move here if I wanted to, that I have the gear for it, at least, and the weather is no worse than Wisconsin in most places. There is nothing keeping me from becoming an Alaskan. One could say that about becoming an Floridian as well but it would not be relaxing moving here. I would really have to pay attention, this doesn’t seem to be the place for layabouts.
Ambition is a gift.
I have been making a mental list of my ambitions – writing, publishing, advocacy, service, travel, physical challenges. There are a dozen beautiful things to do and knowing that makes me feel like a million bucks. It’s what a good trip does – charges me up to go be great. It’s magical.
If you are feeling stuck, go somewhere, anywhere, with your phone in your pocket and a change of clothes in a bag. Go remember how to get excited about what comes next, about what you will make happen next. Trust me, new ideas and new goals will sprout everywhere you look and you will need to keep a list.