It's long. Take a seat.
Yesterday I found a big envelope containing all the letters I wrote to my Dad after I moved from Toronto to Montreal back in the early 90s (and essentially left the nest for real.) After my Dad died in '92, his wife gave them all back to me. My Dad always kept everything I ever gave him. I have another box full of cards and letters and anything else on paper that I sent or handed to him from the time he and my Mum split up in 1972 until his death at age 61. Amazing!
Once I started reading the "Montreal letters" last night, I couldn't put them down. Mostly I felt like I was reading the words of someone who was not me! For starters, where did I get all that energy and drive from?! The past 15 years have really worn me down, for various reasons, and I guess I am officially middle-aged now to boot (but wiser), although my baby husband turns just 40 this month. I picked a younger man, if only by four years. Yes, I am a cradle robber. Younger men are more trainable. (Hahaha! Right, Honey? "Yes dear!")
Back in the early 90s, I had recently graduated from my graphic design college programme, moved six hours east to Montreal to follow my then-boyfriend, now-husband, and was looking for my first "real" (as in "design-related") job in a city that I knew not at all. I was bunking with Gordon while I looked for work to fund my own apartment so that I could move my stuff and my dog to Montreal with me. I finally did get a job, after three months of working hard at the search, and I have the best memories of my three-odd years in that city. I might add I have been following Gordon all around the country every since, and while it was often fun and fascinating, I am so DONE with moving!
In one of the Dad-letters, I expressed disbelief that I was now 28. Egads, 28! Imagine thinking 28 is ancient. Little did I know then that by the end of that year, my Dad would be gone forever. My Mum followed him five years to the day later, at age 64. Losing your parents is one sure way to grow up.
These days I'm at an age where many (but not all! I like having friends of all ages) of my friends and acquaintances are also middle-aged, and health problems and other issues are starting to crop up. People are starting to complain about getting older. I seem to know many people who just not happy with their lives, and it's a real shame. I know people who seem to have everything anyone could want in life, yet they still aren't content. Maybe it's just middle-age crises cropping up these days; who knows? Too many disappointments, too much stress, whatever, I don't know. I know I now feel more of a sense of urgency to get important things done than I did when I was in my 20s and 30s.
Back in November my oldest friend Carol, someone who had been in my life for well over 30 years, died suddenly and completely unexpectedly fewer than three weeks after being diagnosed with cancer in a very advanced state. She was just 42 and her death has devastated her husband, family, friends and co-workers. I don't know how her parents will get over the loss of their youngest child. It is simply unnatural for children to predecease their parents, whatever the age.
These days, whenever I am tempted to whine about getting older, or when I hear other people complaining, I think about Carol. No one is a saint in life, but Carol came close. :) If ever anyone had things to complain about, it was Carol. She had some major health issues that truly affected her quality of life. She and her husband longed for a family, but she lost her only baby at term, and was never able to conceive again. And then she lost her life at a ridiculously premature age. There is some comfort in thinking that she might now be reuited with her infant son.
When I heard from Carol, as I did on a regular basis (we always lived considerable distances apart after her family moved away from Toronto when I was in grade 8 and she was in grade 7), there never a complaint in her letters or emails. The only way I could find out how she was doing healthwise was to ask very direct questions. Bascially, I had to pry stuff out of her.
It was just a pleasure seeing something from her in my mailbox or inbox, because I knew it would pleasant and uplifting. I knew Carol wasn't going to dump on me. I miss her presence so much, and there aren't many people outside my family who have known me as long as Carol did. And she really did live her life to the fullest, without regrets. That was no cliché with her. It just was. You would almost think she knew that her time on earth would be limited.
I hear a lot of people say they hate aging, hate getting old. My response to that, at least in my head, is that it beats the alternative! Neither of my parents lived to "retirement age", and my goal is to make it at least that far. This is why I exercise almost every day, watch what I eat, get enough sleep, and try to avoid stress. It's not because I'm particularly disciplined, good (you ask my husband if I'm a saint. He'll tell you I'm not!), monk-like or have a special love of exercise and high-fibre foods; it's because I know the genetic odds are stacked against me living to 90, and I want to do all I can to be here on earth as long as possible, because I have things to do! Ergo, I don't mind spending ten minutes in the morning making oatmeal from scratch if it means I'm looking after the body, the thing getting me through what I hope is the second HALF of my life! Plus if I don't exercise, I feel like crap mentally, so it's no hardship for me making that choice. I make no judgment about what other people do in their lives, not in this department. I can only do what works for me.
You see, I am not convinced that aging is as bad as people make it out to be, nor am I convinced that aging has to equal poor health and and a nursing home and a six-pack of Depends. There's a firmly-ingrained belief amongst many in North America that people get sick and useless after about age 65, and are no longer needed in society. What hogwash! I have a couple of friends in their mid-80s who live in a house that has a LADDER (no stairs!) to the loft where they watch TV and do their ironing. The daily ladder-climb is no doubt part of the reason they are so agile and independent and still living on their farm!
Sometimes we have no control over these things; people get old and sick and it's not their fault. Not everything is under our control. (My motto is, I can't control everything that happens to me in life; I can only control how I respond to it.) Me, I just don't believe that aging has to be horrible and painful and ugly. And I want to do all I can to stack the odds in my favour for healthy senior years. I have never been one of those people who think they won't die. If anything, I've always been a little TOO aware of that fact, and when my Dad died, I became determined to live a life without regrets.
On his deathbed, Dad told me that he had no regrets, and I aspire to that. That's not to say he didn't have his ups and downs, nor make mistakes, because he certainly did. But at least he put himself out there. He TRIED. I know that Carol lived her life the same way. She didn't put things off, or find excuses for not doing things that were important. She lived her life and she didn't bitch about it. As a result, she touched a lot of people and there was a huge turnout at her funeral. We're all hurting because she's gone.
Travelling to other countries (Third World, developing nations, whatever you want to call them) has also permanently changed me. I mean, how can I possible seriously whine about the $700 brake job on our car last month (see how I slipped that complaint in? HAHAHA! The "check engine" light went on yesterday too!) when I have met people who have one ratty pair of shoes to their name, people without enough to eat, people who will never see 50, never mind 60, people who can only DREAM about owning a car? I have met people who have suffered through terrible wars, famines, lost limbs to landmines, you name it. There's a lot of suffering going on in the world, and I don't mean not being able to afford the latest Crackberry. Clearly there are things in life that will make us justifiably sad, but sometimes we get worked up over things that are pure silliness when put in the context of the greater world.
Canadians whine incessantly but really, most of us are so fortunate it's ridiculous (obviously there are exceptions and there are people in real need in this country, but I'm not talking about them.) If you ever want a lesson on how being well-fed, well-housed, and having lots of possessions doesn't necessarily make for happiness, go to Cambodia or Vietnam or Sri Lanka, interact with the people, then come home to North America and compare gratitude and happiness levels. 'nuff said. And oh yeah, a lot of these countries actually VALUE the elderly. Imagine that! I ain't perpetuating the "happy poor" myth, but it's not a myth that money doesn't buy happiness, beyond a certain point (food and shelter and basic needs.)
I never make New Year's resolutions, but this January I am reminding myself how lucky I am to have all that I have. I am going to do my best not to complain about "getting older." I am going to continue to believe that we're here on earth to learn a few things, be kind to ALL living creatures, give and get some love, and leave behind a small environmental footprint. (Note to world: humans aren't half as smart as they think they are. Pay more attention to nature.)
Aging is just part of the natural process of life. I can't stop it and I'm not going to try. I'll just do my best to enjoy the ride, keep myself healthy, and live each day like it's my last. Because it could be! You just never know when the number 82 bus is going to jump the curb and nail the bus stop after the driver spills hot coffee in his crotch. Or when the ice will be just a titch too thin under your snowmobile and oh my, you should have bought those ice-claw thingies so you could drag yourself back out of the water. Or when the green beans that Auntie Mabel canned simply weren't pressure-cooked long enough, and oh my God, am I really going to die from something as stupid as botulism beans? Why yes, apparently I am! (Apologies to the late Carol Shields, who is not my Carol but another Carol. Hey, Larry's Party was a fun book!)
You JUST. NEVER. KNOW.
And like I say, aging really, really beats the alternative: dying young. Like Carol.