“I’m old,” I said to my wife, Deb, on the morning of Dec. 29, 2018.
“You’re only as old as you think you are,” she said, a long moment later, as we drank our morning coffee and prepared to celebrate my 60th birthday — the BIG ONE.
“I think I am 60, and to me 60 is the ‘Old 60,’” I said, frowning ruefully and scratching the top of my balding head. I sat down on a kitchen chair and enjoyed the melodious metal creek of my knees a la the Tin Man’s. “This idea that 60 is the new 40, or 80 is the new 18 is pure nonsense propagated by 10-year-olds that think they are 7.”
“Well, I’m not going to spend the rest of my life with a whining old man,” she said. She dumped the remainder of her drink into the sink and then walked into the family room. “You can feel whatever you want, but don’t ruin today. Your daughters are looking forward to celebrating your birthday.”
At some point in my life — probably when I was 20, but felt like the ‘New 47’—I began to buy stock in the societal axiom that human beings become “past tense” at age 60, no longer capable or even worthy of contributing to the world. Six of my forebears later reinforced this limiting belief by departing
the earthly realm at exactly age seventy. So, by age 50, I felt as if I were waving goodbye to my youth.
Still, self-pity notwithstanding, I had no plans to ruin my birthday, even if I had to pep myself up with a bottle each of Geritol and Femiron supplements. We’d made plans to see ‘Mary Poppins Returns,’ just Deb and my daughters Jordan and Brooke. I hoped the film, like its predecessor, would remind me that my imagination, if not my skeleton, was ageless.
Sure enough, later that day, I felt like there was nowhere to go but UP!
That buoyant feeling that Mary Poppins had imbued in me lasted a week…until one day when I ordered a large iced coffee from a local café and was charged half-price because I was a senior citizen. Yikes. Just to spite the server, I drank only half of it. And then I fell back into the self-defeating “Why bother?” mode. I can’t help humanity at this stage of my life!
I needed help. Fortunately, help came one night in late January, when I arrived home from work. Deb and my daughter Brooke greeted me in the foyer, hands on hips, expressions reading “Ya screwed up, Buddy!”
“I guess you didn’t read your text?” Deb snapped, tapping her foot impatiently on the faux-hardwood floor.
“I asked you to stop at the store for baking powder. I can’t bake cookies without it.”
“Sorry, I forgot,” I said, shrugging dopily like Mad Magazine’s iconic front man Alfred E Newman. “What do you expect from me? I’m 60! It’s not my fault!”
I turned and walked out the door, jumped into my car and took off for Stop and Shop. On the way there, however, I was blessed with an epiphany. Rather than succumb to the aging process, I would use my age to my advantage!
Two days later, Brooke scolded me for forgetting to take out the trash.
“Not my fault; I’m 60,” I said, smartly.
At work, I solved all sales and customer service issues succinctly: “I am sorry your parts are late; I’m 60, and it’s not my fault.”
Saturdays, at my deli job at The Deli, I greeted customers with a stunning rendition of “I am Woman,” by Helen Reddy. When my boss upbraided me for acting inappropriately, I replied “Not my fault; I’m 60.”
On those special romantic nights with my wife: “Not my fault; I’m 60.”
Indeed, by the time I was 60 years and four months old, I had become a master of irresponsibility. Until…
“You can’t use that excuse forever, you know,” Deb said one evening in early spring. “People might start thinking you have dementia.”
Oh. Dementia. Not a laughing matter in my family. Alzheimer’s or dementia had claimed the mental health and eventually the lives of my grandmother and grandfather and had turned my father into a stranger to me. One day, I might be the one struggling to remember my own identity.
Back to digging an emotional morass in the softening, springtime, backyard soil. Then, as the trees blossomed in all of their technicolor glory, and pollen had invaded our sinuses, I suddenly lost my ability to breathe.
“I can’t catch my breath when I am chasing the dogs uphill,” I told my doctor during a May visit. “I feel like I am breathing through a sock.”
The Doc eyed me curiously; he’d been treating me for over 25 years and knew my health history inside out, literally.
“You just earned your ticket for a stress test,” he said, with a nod.
I shot him a quizzical look. I’d not expected that.
“I think it’s my asthma acting up, or my CPAP machine making me sick?!’ I pleaded.
“You’re old; you’re getting the test. Stress AND pulmonary and echocardiogram,” he added, firmly.
I could have sunk into another chasm of despair. This time, however, I decided to take action. Yes, I was 60, but I had the energy and verve of a 90-year-old. I would muster all of my willpower and Midol Complete and pass every test put before me.
I am a bull. I am a stud, I told myself the next day, while staring in the mirror at the reflection of my Play Doh-like physique. I went to work. Cut back on snacks, walked during lunch breaks. Put our dusty elliptical trainer to work and pedaled until I had launched myself into trans-lunar injection.
I lost 10 pounds. My attitude improved. I felt like I was 60 going on 17. I was ready for… the tests.
I passed the echocardiogram, no problem.
A week later, I went for the stress test. I stepped onto the treadmill of torture, with 110 electrodes running from my physique to an EKG machine that would test my heart when under duress. I started walking briskly, confidently. And then came the fateful warning:
“I am going to increase the speed and resistance of the treadmill,” said the medical technician administering the test. She was, incidentally, no more than 22 and the owner of a physique that looked like it was 21.
Have you ever heard the sound a vacuum cleaner makes when it tries to suck up a sheet or towel or other object twice its size?
That’s the sound I made, for what felt like the next three hours. Finally, the nubile Med-Tech rescued me from sure death and stopped the test. Slowly, and gingerly, I stepped off the treadmill mat and collapsed onto a nearby bed.
“How many miles, how many hours, how many solar systems did I run?” I asked, fighting back the bile that was rising into my mouth from my surely ruptured spleen or liver.
“Well, Mister Ethier, you made it to seven minutes. Well done!”
“Seven minutes? That’s pitiful,” I thought.
“I used to do 40 minutes on an elliptical. This is much more demanding.”
“It sure is,” she said. “The doctor will be right in to review the results.”
I thanked her and waited for the doctor to come into the room.
Thirty six minutes later he did, carrying a copy of my EKG, folded like an accordion and stacked a foot high. Everything was normal, he said. Only thing:
“Seven minutes on the treadmill isn’t very much for someone your age.”
“I’m 60. It’s not my fault,” I snapped. I dressed quickly and left the 60-something-year-old cardiologist muttering something about exercising 75 hours a week.
In closing, I am still searching for the right perspective from which to view life as a 60-year-old. For now, the best I can say is “I AM.”