As a kid, I thought Christmas would never come. I’d want something–a toy, a musical instrument, a jersey (because that’s all I wore when I was a kid)–and my parents would tell me I could have it for Christmas. Yet Christmas was an eternity away. And by an eternity, I mean about four months.
My birthday was the same way. I was five and wanted to be six. I was eleven and wanted to be twelve. I was fifteen and wanted to be sixteen. And I never thought that day would come.
As an adult, I find the opposite is true. I had a birthday recently. A few weeks before my birthday, my husband asked for gift ideas. The question took me by surprise because it seemed like I had just had a birthday. I say this with neither dread nor excitement, simply as an observation. My birthday comes around once a year, just as it always has. There was exactly one year between my ninth and tenth birthdays. Not coincidentally, there was the same amount of time between my two most recent birthdays. How come birthdays seemed so far apart when I was a kid?
And Christmas…I feel like it’s Christmas season about 80% of the year. In January we put the tree in its box (some years we even take off the ornaments) and store it in the basement. Then comes the cycle again–Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas–in the blink of an eye.
To be honest, it scares me. I work with older people, so I accept that I will someday grow old. More than that, I hope that I grow old because it’s a privilege that many people don’t get to experience. I don’t take it for granted. It’s just that life seems to be on fast forward. Sometimes I want to pause it or at least experience it in slow motion. I’m in a good place. I like it here.
In one of my first years of college teaching, a student in one of my classes had a seizure. I can’t say I panicked. In fact, I knew exactly what I needed to do, and I did it very confidently.
I said to my class, “I’ll be right back. I’m going to get a grown up.” I ran out of the room and found another faculty member who I apparently perceived as an actual grown up. For the record, I was 28. That’s the thing about how fast time goes…you forget that you’re older than you used to be. You forget that you’re the grown up.
Recently I had a conversation with my friend Jen about adulthood. She’s in her 20’s. I’m in my 30’s. Both of us feel like we are faking adulthood on some level. We don’t know if we’ll ever feel like adults, or maybe we just had the wrong idea about what it is to be a full-fledged grown up. You blink, and you’re 25, then 30, then 35…and I just turned 38. I’m not complaining about getting older; I just don’t know where the time went.
While visiting a nursing home, I got into a conversation about how time slips away faster and faster as I get older. (And I know that I am by no means “old.”) I was talking to a man in his 80’s who has dementia. I was telling him a story about how I once registered for a 10k and said I was 32 when I was actually 34.
“Life is like a roll of toilet paper,” he said. For a moment, I thought he was trying to quote Forrest Gump but was confused. I was wrong. He knew exactly what he was saying. I realized later that this is something Andy Rooney said as well.
He went on to explain that a toilet paper roll spins faster when there is less toilet paper remaining on the roll. It made sense to me. When the roll is full, it spins slowly. Yet when less remains on the roll, it begins to spin faster and faster. He explained this using overly dramatic hand motions–so dramatic I worried he was going to fall out of his chair.
“I thought my roll was on its last spin a couple years ago, but it kept on spinning,” he told me dramatically. “Now I don’t wanna blink because I’ll be dead before my eyes open.”
I had a few students with me, and they laughed awkwardly. He went on to explain something that I’ve thought for a long time haven’t been able to put into words. He told us that he was tired of people (most of whom are much younger than he is) complaining about getting older. He said that he was going to scream if he heard one more person turning 40 complain about their birthday.
“You’re 40 and you’re here. Be happy for that. You could be dead,” he said. When he said the word “dead,” he put his hands up to his neck, as if he were croaking. He could have been more eloquent, but I appreciated his bluntness. “Time flies. Don’t waste it by bitching that you’re 30, you’re 40, you’re 50. I’m 85 and I’m sitting here. I’m probably gonna drop dead before the evening news but at least I’m here now. I’m lucky.”
My students, again, laughed awkwardly, but they were listening. They seem fascinated by his monologue. He talked more about life….about how he refuses to complain about his aches and pains because aches and pains are better than being dead, about how he can’t bitch about using a cane when he sees people younger than he is in wheelchairs, and about how he thinks it’s ridiculous that a person can join AARP at 50–when they are “just a kid.” He thinks you shouldn’t be eligible for AARP until at least 70. He also talked about how his mom died 50 years ago, but he still sometimes waits for her to scold him when he says a bad word.
He told us that he can’t do everything. He can’t drive a car. He can’t play tennis. He can’t golf. Then he stopped to point out that he never could golf. He paused while he waited for us to laugh. We obliged, although I’m not sure my students got the joke.
On the way back to campus, a couple students and I had a philosophical conversation about life. It’s the type of conversation I always thought I’d have with students as a college professor but seldom happens except in the movies. Somehow, on our short drive across town, we talked about how our youth-centered society makes us dread aging and how we hate the term anti-aging…because they only way to stop aging is…well…you get where I’m going with this.
As we pulled into the parking lot, one of my students said, “That guy at the nursing home was kinda like Yoda. He was really wise and made me think.”
There is something about one of my college students comparing this old guy with dementia to Yoda that made my day–or my week–or maybe my whole teaching career. It was a good day.
I was talking to a colleague recently who said she hated “everything about growing older.” She complained about the wrinkles around her eyes, and she talked about how she can only eat “about 10 calories” a day without gaining weight.
I told her about my friend with dementia and his analogy about toilet paper. I told her what he had said about not complaining about aging—because you could be dead. I expected her to have an Oprah-style “aha” moment much like my students and I did during our conversation about how life is life a roll of toilet paper. She stared at me. She wasn’t buying what I was selling.
“Stop it with that crap. You’re such a gerontologist,” she said.
I guess people have to learn to accept getting older on their own terms. And I’m no Yoda.