In my early 60s, I found myself singing two songs from time to time – “I Want To Live Till I Die” and “Life Is A Cabaret.” I didn’t think about it. It just sort of happened. I didn’t consider the political implications, or listen to them on records or tape. I just belted them out, in private. They spoke to me, or maybe they spoke for me. And as the years went by, I came to realize that they were my aging anthems. “That will be me, I thought.”
Until I was almost 70.
It never occurred to me that I would be anything but vibrant and healthy. I would be old. But I would be adventurous, finally comfortable in my own skin, beholden to no one. I would squeeze every minute of joy out of every day!
Life, however, had other plans for me. I had not taken into account the randomness of it. I had not planned for a future of declining physical abilities. Limited finances. The death of friends. Isolation. Depression. The feeling of uselessness. There was no song to sing. No anthem that embodied the surprising pain of growing old.
I will be 73 in April, and I think I am beginning to sort it out.
In a way, it’s like being reborn. All the old assumptions about how I would “grow old gracefully” have to be re-examined. Most have to be discarded. It requires a new way of looking at myself. Who am I? What do I need? What do I want? What makes my life worth living?”
Who Am I?
I am a woman whose childhood included abandonment, physical and sexual abuse. Whose family history encompassed mental illness and suicide. I am a product of that environment and only recently come to understand its impact. I love nature, art and music. I am curious. A dedicated Life Long Learner. I enjoy the company of people, but am also comfortable being alone. I am stronger than I thought. Loyal. A good friend who does not have many. Loving, but without much of it. I care about the conditions of children, the poor and disabled, women and the environment. I am spiritual more than religious, although I value my religious studies. I am not particularly materialistic. I am passionate about writing and photography. I love to laugh.
What Do I Need?
I need a safe, cozy, affordable home which will allow me to live independently for as long as possible. I need enough money to take care of myself. I need to hear the sound of laughter, the songs of birds, and the voices of friends. I need a few people who care about me, and who I care about. I need to see beauty in all its forms. I need intellectual stimulation and challenge. And I need to have a purpose – a reason to wake up every morning. I need to be a person of value.
What Do I Want?
Ah! Here is where it gets tricky! Much of what I wanted, I can no longer have.
Physical limitations make it impossible to do more travel than just simple day trips. I dreamed of going cross-country in a tiny house or by train… stopping whenever I found something interesting…journaling and taking photos along the way. Meeting new people. Adventure!
I thought I would be able to live wherever I chose. It would be a little cottage by the water. Have beautiful views. I would have a garden, a dog and two cats. Wonderful neighbors who would stop by to share a meal. Perhaps a loving partner. In nice weather I would set out a long table laden with food and bottles of wine and we would stay up until late, joking and sharing stories.
I wanted to go zip-lining. Up in a hot air balloon. Fly in a helicopter. Do more white water rafting, sailing and hiking.
I wanted to see an opera at the Met. Maybe even a ballet at the Bolshoi.
So much more. It would not have been an extravagant or elegant life, but I would have financial security and good physical health. It all seemed within reach. It is not.
I have spent part of the last two years grieving. Perhaps that sounds selfish. I am keenly aware of the abundance in my life…all the creature comforts, the remaining friends, the calendar filled with interesting, fun things to do. Good health care. But giving up the dream – the plans – the picture so clear. Can I tear out the old page in the coloring book of my life and start a new one?
What do I want now? What is realistic? What will make me happy? Is “happy” a goal? Perhaps “contentment” is more appropriate. What about joy? Exhilaration? Amazement? Wonder? Surprise? Must I settle, modify my expectations – words my friends frequently use to help me avoid what they foresee as certain disappointment if I continue to ”want too much.”
I want to wake up every morning feeling grateful. Just small things will often be enough. The aroma of my fresh coffee. Feeding the birds, watching the geese and ducks raise their babies in spring, viewing an occasional deer, wild turkey or other critter. I hope to see the seasons change; my garden, wildflowers and the woods behind my apartment ablaze with color. I want to walk outside and say “hi” to my neighbors, play with their dogs, and watch their children growing up.
I want to be a good person. Someone who is kind and compassionate, a good listener and genuine. I want to love and be loved.
I want to keep the friends I have and make new friends. Be exposed to different ideas, traditions and lifestyles.
I want to stay current with world events, politics and technology.
I want to remain independent. This one is especially difficult. As my mobility and stamina lessen, I will have to find new and different ways to make this happen. Hardest of all, I will have to reconsider what “independence” means. Learn that accepting help, or even asking for it, does not invalidate me.
I want to be useful, not just self-involved. I want to fulfill my purpose, something I wrote on a Post-it note three years ago and is on my bathroom mirror so I can see it several times a day – To Write, Build Community, Find Solutions and Leave A Legacy. For me that means becoming a voice for those who are aging alone, especially those who are disabled, not financially well off, isolated and depressed.Bringing to fruition my project, YBAlone.
And yes – I want to feel joy, amazement and exhilaration as long as I am breathing!
What Makes My Life Worth Living?
I suppose it is all the things I want. The belief that if I do the best I can, every day, I can have them. Some days will be better than others. More productive. Less pain filled. More positive. There is, of course, still randomness and the unexpected But that is no longer a surprise – part of the wisdom that comes from experience and age.
Just last month, I found my new anthem. A unusual one for me, since it is a country music song, and I am not a huge fan of country music. It was the title that attracted my attention. Sung by Darrius Ruckus, it is called “When Was The Last Time You Did Something For The First Time”? What a wonderful question! I don’t want my answer to be “Wow! I can’t even remember”!
I Want To Live Until I Die. Can I?
Carole Leskin is a retired Director of Global Human Resources. Embarking on a second career as a writer and photographer concentrating on her personal accounts of aging, her essays and poetry, frequently accompanied by her photos, are published in Jewish Sacred Aging, Jewish Women of Words, Starts At 60, Navigating Aging ( a Kaiser Health publication), Women’s Older Wisdom, Time Goes By and Next Avenue. Her poems, “Father Time” and “Carole’s Debate” were selected for inclusion in the 2019 anthologies of poetry, New Jersey Bards. Her photos have been featured in Mart R Porter Nature Forum.