‘The startling realisation that I am not going to ease my way into old age’

Dec 20, 2019
Scenic Smithville Lake in Burlington County on a late-autumn day. Source: Getty Images

It’s no secret. You can read about it in every type of media. Watch people discuss it on cable TV, even on PBS. There are books, podcasts and Ted Talks, and you probably mention it to some of your friends. We view time differently as we get older.

For those recently retired, without the structure of work, time may go slowly. There is a struggle to fill the days and nights with things that matter. While for those who are further along, time may go frighteningly fast. They watch children and grandchildren grow up and move on. The ‘bucket list’ looms large. Will they get to do it all?

I have experienced both. Still do. But this year is different. I am no longer healthy, something I foolishly assumed I would be forever. My time is filled with doctor appointments and tests. Pain. The startling realisation that I am not going to ease my way into old age. I will, instead, live with physical limitations I never envisioned. A life I do not know how to live. And frankly, don’t want to. I am angry, frustrated, and sad. I feel like a different person. My freedom is diminished. My confidence is shaken. My expectations are shattered. I will be 75 next April. Time. How much do I have left? How do I use it when I am trapped inside a body that is contrary to my image of what Carole would be like as an old woman?

Experience has taught me that answers to my questions often come at unexpected times and in accidental places. Age has taught me to listen. I did just that the other day.

It began with an abrupt change of plans. I found myself on a picture postcard autumn day dressed and ready to go. I felt reasonably good (sometimes that happens for no apparent reason). Nothing to do. And something telling me that I had to use this time well.

I decided to drive to one of my favourite parks, Smithville Lake, New Jersey. Hundreds of acres with trails through old forests, along the Rancocas Creek, beside fresh running streams, and with views of farmland for miles. It is a National Historic Site, with ruins from the original Native American tribes, Revolutionary War, Old Mills, and an 1840s industrial village and mansion. It houses a new museum commemorating the well-known stop on the Underground Railroad that aided more than 800 slaves to continue their escape to freedom. I love this place and have spent the past 20 years exploring it in every season. There is still so much left to see.

I had not been there for more than a year. The drive, only half an hour, has been too much for me, and the walking next to impossible. For some reason, I knew I could do it on this day.

I chose to park close to the dam and walk along the trail beside the lake and village. Everywhere I turned, there was something beautiful! And even though I had hiked this area so many times before, it was as if I was seeing it for the first time. I understood why. Time.

Since that visit, I have undergone a hip replacement surgery, robotic, complicated by my recent stroke and spinal degenerative disease. It will be almost a year of physical therapy and additional care before full mobility is restored. No driving for several weeks and then short trips only. Lots of days spent at home alone. And probably a year before I can visit Smithville Lake again. Do I have a year? Growing old brings an almost sickening awareness that no day is guaranteed.

Time. The knowledge that there is less of it. The need to savour every moment whenever possible. On this day I experienced what I had seen and appreciated so many times before and yet was entirely different! Each of my senses was heightened. The colour of the lake wasn’t just blue — it was purple, green, orange and black. I was fascinated by the rust of iron spikes on the old fences. The reddish-brown of ancient bricks. The mold that clings to decaying wood. The stream didn’t just babble. It murmured, gurgled, and in places, yelled. I heard the footsteps of hikers crunching on the gravel. People on bikes laughing, pointing out something that caught their attention. Birds splashing as they landed on the water. The creaking of the abandoned buildings in the wind. I smelled the fertile soil and blue algae. And at the end of the day I tasted the richness of freshly picked Jersey tomatoes and luscious blueberries.

I spent hours, walking slowly, covering only a short distance. Each step over uneven ground, cobblestones and mud, was a victory. My cane was my weapon. It crushed my enemy — frailty. I silently thank it.

Reluctantly, I returned to my car. It’s much cooler now then when I arrived, but I rolled down the sunroof anyway. My hair blew in the wind. My fair skin burned. In my mind I was singing Beach Boy songs. I was young. And then my internal radio tunes to another song — ‘These Precious Days’. I am old again. But wiser. Even content.

Lesson learned. I must use these precious days — however many there are — as if each is the last. Capture every moment of beauty. Love without inhibition. Feast at my table of life. Refuse to allow old age, physical disability, finances, loss and sorrow, dim my view of the glories that are mine if I look hard enough. Here’s to the precious days ahead!

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