WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE OLD?

MY COUSIN JIM SEEING ME OFF TO EUROPE IN 1959

IN 1959 I graduated from Cornell ‘s Nursing School and right after taking the RN exam nine of us headed off to Europe for six weeks. I had already lined up a job as a public health nurse starting in September. When my friends first started talking about this trip I had no thoughts of going. If I did anything like that I wanted to pay for it myself. After all I would soon be a working woman. But when my parents heard what my friends were up to, they insisted I go.

My great Aunt Rose died when I was about 12. She left me money to get braces on my teeth. She told me she was going to do that. Unfortunately Aunt Rose did not specify in her will why she was leaving me the money and since I was a minor my parents were not only not allowed to use the money, but my mother had to go through a court procedure to be appointed my legal guardian. And once a year, till I was 18, she had to file papers with the Court detailing her care of the money. In the end my parents paid for me to have braces and when I reached eighteen and the Aunt Rose money came to me, I gave it to them. It was about two thousand dollars. As far as I was concerned the money was theirs. Unbeknownst to me, Mom and Dad put it in a bank account for me. When they learned of the planned European trip they insisted I use that money and join my friends. I insisted the money was theirs. What finally made me change my mind was their saying that Aunt Rose would be so happy to have me going on such an adventure. I knew that was true. The picture above is when my cousin Jim surprised me by coming to see me off.

Jim and his wife live in California. He called today. Growing up we spent so much time with Jim and his sister Fran that I often thought of them more as my brother and sister rather than as first cousins – probably pretty understandable since our identical twin sister mothers were so very close. Jim is two years older than me, the same age as my brother Pete. We were all very close. Jim has dealt with some tough health issues but has never lost his sense of humor. I have always enjoyed his take on life and since I was planning on writing this blog about feelings on being old I probed him for his thoughts. He laughed. He certainly did not think 80 was the new 40. We both agreed that aging was easier when you retain your mental capabilities. But under that scenario you are also very aware of the aging process chipping away at your health – sometimes in a minor way sometimes making a more major inroad.

About two weeks ago I went for a skin check by the dermatologist. Might have cancelled the appointment in this time of Covid 19 but there were two spots on my face that were red and irritated and sometimes given to bleeding. I had pointed the spots out to the dermatologist on a previous visit and had been told it was just aging skin. Since I have a rather robust history of basil cell and squamous cell cancer I pay close attention to skin aberrations.

I am proud of my Irish heritage but fair skin combined with a childhood where many hours were spent in sun-filled outdoor pursuits has made me fertile ground for skin cancer. The doctor decided it was time to biopsy both spots. I was told I would get a phone call if the biopsies came back positive – that I did not need to call but of course could if I wanted too. Since about thirty five years ago I had the experience of not getting a call back when a test result was positive I have always followed up in these circumstances. I was glad I did. Though the doctor’s office said they had tried to reach me there was no record of such a call on my I-phone. It turned out the secretary had the wrong number. The smaller spot was a basil cell , the larger was squamous cell. I took their first available appointment for Mohs surgery – a week from today – thanked them , said goodbye, hung up the phone and started crying. The tears were strictly vanity tears. I have been down this road before. It was not a matter of life and death. I am a breast cancer survivor – this was definitely not a matter of life and death.

My last Mohs surgery – about a year and a half ago – was down the center of my nose. l had handled that well. After a little rest at home following that surgery I had gone with my husband to an afternoon of bridge – with a large pressure dressing on my nose. This was a local bridge group of contemporaries that Jerry and I belonged to. I figured everyone could care less about how I looked – they were into their bridge. Why was I being such a baby about this new skin cancer? Pure unadulterated vanity. Maybe vanity gets worse as you get older. I had a vision of my face filled with ugly craters that gradually got worse with the passage of time. Fortunately at that moment our son Jim called. He is partially named after cousin Jim. Though I tried to act like all was fine – Jim quickly sensed that it was not. And I finally succumbed to his concern. He said all the right things. And between Jim’s words and my husband’s hugs – he had been working in the other room and was not initially aware of what was going on – I got my head on straight again. That night Jerry and I played on line scrabble with our son who is sheltering in place with his family at their beach home in New Jersey and with his daughter and her fiancee who are in California. In the chit chat before the game began I never even thought to mention my impending Mohs surgery.

What does it mean to be old? Is there a number that can be attached to that pivotal point when one passes from the first half of life to the second. I believe it is different for different people. And what makes for the difference? The first half is a time of family, school, focusing on a career, perhaps raising a family. It is a time to gain wisdom and set priorities for what is truly important, to work on becoming comfortable with our inner self . The second half of life flows much easier when we see a purpose to our lives; when we are able to share the wisdom and experiences that are part of aging; when to the best of our ability our focus is not on the physical aspects of aging but rather on the opportunities for growth and learning that abound in our world.

I believe the meaning in being old is to be found in setting proper priorities for what we want from life and what we feel we can give to life.

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