I TURNED 50 just the other day, but I got the gift that I most needed nearly two years earlier, from a couple of strangers whom I never saw again.
I was in a surgeon’s waiting room, about to have a crimson hillock carved from my back. This, I’ve learned, is one of the rites of aging: Your body starts generating superfluous things that you wish it wouldn’t — hairs, pounds, moles — and the removal of some is a matter of survival, not vanity. In this instance I had a baby cancer between my shoulder blades, and it threatened, if unattended, to go from relatively harmless to decidedly unfriendly.
Seated across from me were a man and a woman, neither of whom looked a day under 70. I could tell from their conversation that they’d just met, and that they’d both been in this place and through this drill many times before. When it came to carcinoma, they were frequent fliers.
“Too much tennis,” the woman said to the man as she pointed to a subtle divot on her neck, where the sun had done its cruel handiwork.
“Golf,” said the man, touching a similar dent on his brow. “Should have worn a hat.”
She gently pulled up the hem of her skirt to reveal a jagged, angry red line just below her knee. It gave her an excuse to show some leg.
Then she reached over to touch a patch on one of his forearms, which had also gone under the knife.
“Yard work,” he said, in what struck me as a deliberately virile, even boastful tone of voice. Her fingers lingered on the spot. He let them.
It reminded me of that scene in “Jaws” when the shark hunters compare scars, except that the battles that my fellow patients had waged weren’t with the deep’s monsters. They were with the body’s betrayals.
Cosmetically, these two had been diminished. But by other yardsticks?
As I watched them turn rogue cells into compatible memories, affliction into flirtation, I couldn’t help feeling that they’d actually been amplified, and that there’s a mercy and a kind of miracle in the way we’re constructed. We have tricks of the mind and tools of the spirit infinitely more potent than the ravages of time.
Its passage isn’t something I’m happy about. There’s a whole lot of downside, and I don’t mean just the odd growths, the weakening knees, the blurring vision and the crawling metabolism, none of which got the message that 50 is the new 40, at least not in my case.
I mean the lost ambitions. There’s a point at which you have to accept that certain hopes and dreams won’t be realized, and 50 sure feels like it.
I mean the lost margin for error. When you’re in your 20s and even your 30s, you can waste months, squander love, say yes to all the wrong things and no to all the right ones. And you can still recover, because there are many more months and loves and crossroads to come. The mistakes of youth are an education. The mistakes later on are just a shame.
And I mean the lost people most of all: the ones from whom you’re separated by unmovable circumstances; the ones who’ve died. By 50 you start to see the pace of these disappearances accelerating. It’s haunting, and even harrowing.
But there’s something else that you start to notice, something that muffles all of that, a muscle that grows stronger, not weaker. More than before, you’re able to find the good in the bad. You start to master perspective, realizing that with a shift in it — an adjustment of attitude, a reorientation of expectations — what’s bothersome can evaporate and what only seems to be urgent really isn’t.
I was talking about this recently with a close friend who’s only a bit younger than I am, and she said that with each year, she finds her friendships less volatile and easier, because she increasingly succeeds at looking past their flaws and disappointments and homing in on their pleasures and on what set them in motion to begin with. And she wonders why she didn’t do that sooner, why she gave in to so much fury and sorrow when she could have just let those emotions go.
YOU get older and you let things go. You say goodbye to the most isolating parts of your pride and, if you’re lucky, you slough off some of your pettiness.
You finally appreciate the wisdom of doing so, and you come to recognize that among multiple vantage points and an array of responses to a situation, you really can elect the most positive one.
There’s truth to those old saws about clouds and silver linings and lemonade from lemons. But it can take a good long while to wake up to that: to divine the lessons beneath the clichés and embrace them without feeling like a sap.
On the morning of my 50th birthday, I got a call with the results of a test that I’d actually forgotten was being done. A tiny dot that had recently appeared on my nose was indeed precancerous and had to be eliminated. There’d be some sort of freezing followed by some sort of chemotherapy cream and then, if that didn’t work, some sort of carving. Been there, done that, and will probably have to do it over and over again. Too much beach and too many tanning beds in my heedless past.
I thought, Oh, well. I’m blessed with insurance. I’m not a model with a career on the line. I’m not a looker being defaced.
And then I thought about the man and the woman in the surgeon’s waiting room, and how they’d stayed with me ever since, becoming more vivid in my mind as I closed in on 50. They’d underscored aging’s upside, helping me understand it more quickly and clearly. They’d embodied the possibility that you gain as much as you lose, and that there are slivers of opportunity and points of connection where you least expect them.
I have no idea how or if their conversation ended. I left before they did that day. Maybe they never exchanged another word.
Or maybe they swapped telephone numbers and, right now, they’re off together on vacation somewhere. They’re moving less nimbly than they once did. They’re wearing much more sunscreen. But they’re savoring the moment in a heightened way, and definitely not taking it for granted.