Columns 2007

Now that I’m sixty, will my leg fall off?

I recently watched my African Gray parrot Abdul dealing with something that scared him.  I’d put him on my counter while I was cleaning up from dinner and getting some fruit and vegetables ready for bird breakfasts in the morning. I cut up a pineapple and, thinking it might amuse him to tear up the top of the pineapple rather than the drawers in my kitchen island, I put this down next to him.

I don’t usually bring pineapples into the house so this top appeared fairly threatening to him since he’d not seen it before. Despite this fear, he clearly wanted to explore it. He was torn between the desire to get closer and all the instincts of a prey animal that say stay away, it may be something that wants to eat you.

He circled the pineapple top warily for a few moments, glancing from me to it as though hoping for some reassurance.  Then he started whistling.  Not any particular tune, just whistling the kind of nonchalant whistling you might do if you were a little nervous about something but didn’t want to let anyone know you were scared.  He’d saunter jauntily towards the pineapple top while whistling and get almost up to it, then take a detour to the left or right.  He’d run a few steps away, then turn back, start the tuneless whistle again and ever so casually saunter towards it.

Eventually he made it all the way to the pineapple leaves, bit a few of them and walked away obviously disappointed in how dull the subject ultimately turned out to be.  My kitchen drawers were clearly much more fascinating.

I turned sixty recently and I feel great empathy with Adbul’s approach to that pineapple top.  It mirrors my approach to this new decade – whistling tunelessly while casually sauntering towards god knows what at the other end.  I’m staring at the world past sixty and for the first time in my life, I’m not at all sure about what’s to come.

I didn’t mind turning forty or fifty. Those birthdays breezed by me without causing me to stop for even an instant.  But sixty, well sixty is something different. Sixty is when you can no longer even pretend to middle age, let alone youth.  Sixty is when you are smacked in the face with the reality that you are probably not going to live to be 120 so you definitely have more time behind you than ahead of you. Sixty is when you are so thrilled when someone under thirty tells you that you rock that it becomes the highlight of your week. 

Sixty is when you are caught in the headlights of your own mortality as you realize that the generation that famously said never to trust anyone over thirty is now twice as old as that.

In actual fact, life has pretty much continued uninterrupted since I turned sixty.  No one has run down the street pointing at me and yelling, “Look at that old lady. I can’t believe she’s so old and still able to walk.” So at least that fear has been alleviated.  And I still can’t collect social security so the government apparently doesn’t think I’m that old yet.  But that niggling in the back of my mind that says something is different won’t go away.

I’ve reached the age where I have to accept that I will never be the young pretty thing in the room and no one will ever marvel at what I’ve achieved at such a young age. They are more apt to be wondering why it took me so long to achieve what little I’ve accomplished. And although I look forward to the future with some degree of enthusiasm, it is now mixed with a large amount of trepidation.  I keep waiting to wake up one morning and find my leg fell off in the middle of the night.

I am well aware that I am not my grandmother’s sixty. I’m not even my mother’s sixty.  I’m the new sixty. I work out at Curves three times a week. I walk my dogs three miles a day. My time is filled with work and volunteer activities and six birds and two dogs who want my constant attention.  I feel alive and vibrant most of the time.  The rest of the time, the aches and pains of sixty are in full force and I make those awful sounds getting out of cars or going up stairs.

At fifty I knew I was still young. At seventy I imagine I’ll more easily accept that I’m old. But sixty feels so unsettled and in between the two that I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel. So I guess I’ll just get up tomorrow and continue doing what I was doing when I was fifty-nine and let the chips – or legs – fall where they may.