I’ve never been more acutely aware of the realities of aging. Not just growing older, shifting priorities, fluctuating metabolisms, and increasingly earlier bedtimes. I’m particularly distracted by the painful logistics of a maxed out life.
My grandmother isn’t doing well. Mentally she’s sharp as a tack. My father recently questioned the whereabouts of a vase, and without hesitation, she directed him to an obscure hiding place in the living room. But, she’s in such tremendous pain, not just physically, but aching for her displaced independence, modesty and humility. Her suffering stems from a loss that makes a cracked pelvis seem like an irritating bruise.
This weekend my boyfriend told me that I project such a tough and impenetrable exterior and, for the most part, it’s true. But he said that despite my strength, when something cracks me, I crumble. And, he’s right.
My grandmother was cut from the same sensible stoicism or, rather, I was made from hers. But like me, when something breaks her, she’s broken. Last night, I saw the beast that broke my grandmother — time. She’s almost ninety-five years old, and the weight of a century is resting heavy on her arthritic shoulders, gnarled into large knots.
And, it terrified me.
I’ve finally reached a level of maturity of bittersweet understanding of what it means to be at the end of your life. Watching my father and his sister care for and worry about my grandmother feels like a punch in the gut. I can’t help but think big thoughts about having to go through the same generational motions with my own parents, and eventually my own hypothetical children doing so for me. If it’s all so cyclical and natural why does the very thought paralyze me?
Imagining my parents’ inevitable decline is too much to bear and, for the first time in my life, being an only child isn’t all that cute. My parents will forever remain forty years-old in my mind, the way a friend’s kid brother will always be a kid no matter how old he becomes. And it’s only when I look through the old photos from a time when they were the most beautiful couple in the room that I notice the new lines, gray hairs, dimmed irises, and marred skin. And I worry. I worry so much.
I’ve developed a personal ritual over the last few years; when I visit my grandmother’s house I pull out all the photo albums. I look at them all, touch the corners, flip them over to read the date inked in my grandmother’s slanted cursive. My father likes this ritual too. We look at the same photos every time, and they never stop making us laugh at silly haircuts, smile at those who have passed, and gawk at how little us cousins used to be.
My favorite album is always left for last like a decadent dessert. It contains exclusively black and white photographs of my grandparents and their life in early 1940’s Boston, right before they moved to Los Angeles when my father was two years old in 1947. Turning the pages I can’t help but lose my breath at these handsome strange twenty-somethings from another time. I desperately scour their faces to find myself, catching a glimpse in the curve of a nose or curl in the hair. They were so young and beautiful.
We’re all so young and beautiful. Funny to think that eventually we’ll wake up and we just won’t be anymore. It’s a beautifully morbid thing to say now, but it won’t always feel that way. One day the people in our photos will seem like old friends you once knew very well. Or maybe, it will be the opposite; the photos will feel like mirrors and reflections will render unrecognizable.
I don’t know yet.
In the limited conversation she was able to have last night, my grandmother advised us to enjoy being young, and reassured us that she had most definitely enjoyed it. I felt at peace for her, but not for myself.
Am I? Did I? I’m spiraling into selfish hole of self-doubt and potential regret.
Should I have tried to live in New York like I always thought I would? Have I spent too much time working, and not enough time wondering? Was I frivolous with money? Have I kissed enough boys? Have I looked so much that I never leapt? Am I too concerned with holding onto moments that don’t matter, and ignoring the ones that do? Were there enough mistakes, missteps, and broken feelings?
I think about my children and grandchildren coming over to my house to look into the photo boxes they’ve looked at a hundred time before, still finding joy at how young and pretty my friends and I looked posing with our vodka sodas in a dark bar. Who is that girl with the red lipstick? They never knew her. She’s a faintly familiar stranger.
My father walked me out to my car last night. I looked up at him and instantly felt ten years old again. I threw my arms around his waist and held him tighter and longer than I have in a very long time.
“Dad, don’t get old,” I pleaded.
“But, I’m already old,” he said patting my back.