It’s a common question, especially when the birthday ushers in a new decade.
My birthday, which I recently celebrated, is the one where people say, “Sixty is the new 40!” That’s because it is impolite to say, “Sixty! That’s verging on old!”
Not old enough to get the senior discount at the movie theater, enroll in Medicare, or collect Social Security. But within spitting distance.
How do I feel about turning 60?
I feel great.
Since being diagnosed two and a half years ago with a rare and aggressive form of uterine cancer, there is nothing I have wanted more than to grow old.
I was lucky—my cancer was detected early, and I am completely fine. Still, a serious diagnosis permanently pierces the veil that obscures mortality. And even though I fervently believe that anyone who says “the gift of cancer” ought to be shot, the glimpse of death that burned through all my neuroses and made me feel keenly how much I want to live is the gift of cancer.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes that when her husband had a cardiac event in 1987, she refused to believe him when he said, “Now I know how I’ll die.” He dropped dead of a massive heart attack 16 years later. Sixteen years is a decent interval, but still, the original diagnosis presaged his end.
That’s how I feel, too. Unlike with Didion’s husband, whose condition was dubbed “the widow-maker,” there is no reason to believe that my cancer will make my husband a widower, my daughters motherless, my future grandchildren unknown to me. Still, it shadows me–not as a morbid preoccupation, but as a plausible outcome. I hear about people who beat cancer 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago. Then it comes back with a vengeance.
A few months back, my husband and I were chatting about life after retirement.
“I don’t care about living till I’m really old,” Jonathan said. “As long as I make it to 80.”
I began to cry. “I don’t think I’m going to make it there with you,” I said softly as he put his arms around me.
I hope I do, just as I hope to get the senior discount at the movies, know my grandchildren, celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary.
But whatever happens, I have made it to 60! We celebrated exactly as I wished–a thirteen-mile hike through rolling green hills with Jonathan, followed by an intimate dinner with dear friends. We toasted with gin and tonics, bemoaned then solved the problems of the world, and gorged on an incredible gourmet spread topped off by chocolate Kahlua cake. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.
Here’s wishing for many happy returns.