You Get Old
For any man who has led a vibrant, robust life, the realities of aging can be humbling. But as the author has discovered, coming to terms with that is one of life’s great empowerments.
By Pat Jordan
You get old, life gets small. Not meager, pinched, just small. You don’t buy groceries for a week anymore — two hours in the Publix, drenched with purpose, a grocery list that unrolls like the Dead Sea scrolls.
You get old, you shop every day, your list written on the inside cover of a matchbook. Two pork chops, a can of La Sueur peas, four corns (two for tomorrow), two rolls of toilet paper.
You never buy mangoes, avocados, grapefruits, or key limes. You just go into your backyard and pick them off your tree. When you were young, your Uncle Ben retired to Sarasota and immediately sent you oranges from his tree. You thought, How sad. Now that you’re old, you send mangoes, avocados, grapefruits, and key limes to your friends. You enclose a note, very serious, explaining that key limes are not ripe when they’re green. “You must wait until they turn yellow!” you write. You get old, you become an expert on fruit.
You get old, people don’t notice you. You sit at a bar, sipping your Jim Beam Black, neat now, no water, no ice, when a pretty woman in her 40s sits next to you. You smile at her, say hi. She looks at you and through you around the bar.
You get old, young guys don’t get pissed off anymore that you’re lifting heavier weight than they are on the preacher-curl bench. Now they say, “You sure that weight isn’t too heavy for you, sir?” They used to call you Mack. When you were younger you would have said, “Mind your own goddamned business!” Now you say, “Thanks, guy, I think I can handle it.”
You get old, you lose your anger. It takes too much energy to be angry when you’re old. You have more important things to do with your waning energy, so you hoard it like a dwindling resource.
You get old, it’s not always about you. You no longer wait for an opening in a conversation to talk about yourself, your dreams, your accomplishments. It becomes second nature to draw other people into talking about their lives. You’re no longer the life of the party, making people laugh. You no longer have that neurotic compulsion to be known. Why should you? You get old, you know yourself.
You get old, you need less. Less food, less booze, less sex, less sleep. One Jim Beam Black after dinner, savored, so that it lasts until you fall asleep.
You get old, you wake at 4 am as if to catch every moment of your fading days. You struggle out of bed, let the dogs out, make coffee, light a cigar, then go out the front door for your newspapers. You sit on the front steps, sipping your coffee, smoking your cigar in the darkness until Jean Pierre, the Haitian paper deliverer, as black as a purple plum, pulls up in his Toyota. He sees you and gets out of the car. “Sorry, cher, da be late today,” he says, handing you the papers. “No problem, Jean Pierre.”
You get old, you eat dinner at 4 pm, with your wife. You talk about the day, then save half of each of your pork chops, wrapped in Saran wrap, for tomorrow’s dinner. Your refrigerator is stocked with leftovers. Susie wants to throw them out in a day or two, but you stop her, turn the wilting asparagus, the sautéed mushrooms, a few grape tomatoes into a lovely frittata for dinner. You get old, you hate to waste things.
You get old, you see your wife in her tight T-shirt with the words ‘It’s Not Pretty Being Easy’ scripted across her breasts, and you get an idea. But it’s only three o’clock in the afternoon, so you file it away for future reference. When you were young, you’d put that idea into action anytime, anyplace. Now you talk about it with her, make plans for sex. She puts on her silk negligee before she gets in bed. Then you both begin watching Ballykissangel, getting so caught up in it (will Father Peter leave the priesthood and marry Assumpta?) that the next thing you know you’re waking up at 4 am.
You get old, your dogs get old too. It never dawned on you, when you got them, all six, one year after another, that they’d all get old, one year after another, and then die. Now they’re between 10 and 16 years old. Their lives are bounded by food and sleep and all the pills they take, which are lined up on the kitchen counter with yours. Glucosamine and chondroitin for their arthritic joints. Carprofen for their dislocated knees. You see them limping and press their knees back into place. They glance back at you with gratitude. You give them phenobarbital to forestall their epileptic seizures. Ciproflaxacin for their rheumy coughs and sneezes. They wake in the morning with you and begin to wheeze, sneeze, cough, like old men, like you. They have their good days and bad days, like you. You just try to keep them alive for a few more months, then a few months after that. And when they begin to die before your eyes, you feed them water and baby food through a big plastic syringe at first, and then fluids subcutaneously with a needle before that final visit to the vet.
You get old, you set goals for yourself that seem meaningless to others. Not to you. They are proof that you’re not that old. Your wife asks you to “call the man” to break up the old sidewalk in the backyard so she can plant liriope. You tell her you’ll do it yourself. She says, “Don’t be foolish.” You get the sledgehammer and begin whacking at the sidewalk in the summer heat like Cool Hand Luke. Then you wheelbarrow the broken pieces of concrete out to the front swale for the garbageman. Two days later, you can’t get out of bed.
You get old, your strength and stamina go. You mow the lawn, then lie down. Your wife comes home with ten 40-pound bags of mulch. You carry them into the backyard, then lie down. You get old, you can’t do everything in one day — wash the car, mow the lawn, shop for groceries, go to the gym, get a haircut. So you plan out your day like Eisenhower planning D-day. Two things, maybe three, one day, then two more the next.
You get old, you become abstemious. You never buy clothes for yourself anymore. You wear your faded Hawaiian shirts until they’re so threadbare they’re like filmy curtains. You trim little threads with a scissors. One day your wife throws one out. You moan, “But that was my favorite shirt!” She says, “Hoarding is a sign of old age.” You sulk like a child the rest of the day.
You get old, you get your hair cut at Supercuts, $12 for seniors, and then let it grow for two months until it’s curling over your ears and you look like a French diplomat. You were young, you went to a fancy salon, where the pretty blonde massaged your shoulders while cutting your hair, for $65 and a $20 tip. You get old, your wife says, “You’re not going out like that!” You say, “What?” You are wearing a ripped and paint-splattered University of Miami Hurricanes T-shirt, baggy shorts, and flip-flops. You haven’t trimmed your beard in days. You look like Jeremiah Johnson, if he lived in South Florida.
You used to wear $200 Tommy Bahama island shirts and $2,000 ostrich-skin cowboy boots when you went out. Your wife wore spandex minidresses and six-inch pumps. You looked like a successful drug smuggler with a high-priced hooker. You get old, you sell your cowboy boots to a thrift shop for $50 and buy the dogs new collars. You get old, your looks go. You don’t care.
You were handsome once, like a Greek god, with curly black locks and luxuriant chest hair. You still are, in your mind’s eye, even if your hair is so white you look like a ghost in photographs. You look at that photograph of an old man, and say out loud, “Jeez, I look like an old man!” Your friends call back, “You are an old man.” A young friend of your wife’s, maybe 35, picks up a photograph of you when you were 38 off the fireplace mantel. “Wow,” she says. “You were hot once.” You resist the urge to tell her, “I still am.”
You get old, small things give you pleasure that were once an annoyance. Throwing out the garbage, you meet a neighbor walking his dog. You pet his dog, pass the time. The mailman stops at your mailbox. He talks to you about his Brazilian girlfriend, then hands you the mail. Bills, a check, and — eureka! — four movies from Netflix.
You get old, you realize order is freedom. You do your job more professionally, no longer on the fly. You get a magazine assignment — go down 1,500 feet into a coal mine in Virginia, climb a mountain in Haiti — and you prepare for it. You do heavier squats the days before you leave. You fly out the night before your interview so that you will have time to settle yourself, prepare. You get old, you check into a no-tell motel close to the thruway ramp so you have easy access to anyplace you have to go. When you were young you stayed at the best hotels, with pissing Cupid fountains in the lobby and businesswomen on the make in the bar. The first thing you did after you checked in was change your clothes and hit the bar with your barroom smile. Now you go to Denny’s for a snack. Then you go back to the hotel and put your clothes in the dresser drawers and lay out all your notes on the desk so you can review them the next morning before your interview.
You get old, you realize your job these past 40 years was God’s gift. When you were young, you thought you were God’s gift.
You get old, you forget things, not because your mind is going, but because your memory box is filled. A name comes up and you find yourself mentally flipping through all those thousands of slides, trying to place the name with a face or an event. You forget trivial things — where you put the car keys, your glasses — because your mind is filled with more important things. Is the gate in the backyard secured so the dogs won’t get out into the street and get hit by a car? You never forget that.
You get old, you scream at your wife. Not in anger, but because your hearing’s going. “What?” you scream. She looks exasperated. She says loudly, “I said….” You now see the world in a faint haze, like it’s covered with a gauzy film. “Pollen,” you say. Your wife says, “You need stronger glasses.” You refuse to admit that. So you call the Comcast TV repairman once a week. He arrives, a young black kid. “The picture’s blurry,” you say. “And the sound, I have to jack it way up to hear.” He fiddles with the remote, then says, “The picture’s fine. The sound, too. Maybe you need glasses.” You stop calling the Comcast repairman.
You get old, you sell your 1989 Taurus SHO with the five-speed, short-throw shifter, the Recaro racing seats, lowered suspension, rear spoiler, 19-inch mag wheels. You buy a Lincoln LS8, with leather, a wood-trimmed dash, automatic.
You get old, you read the obits. You call out to your wife, “Jeez, Isaac Hayes died! He was an old man, I guess.” Your wife calls back, “About the same age as you.”
You get old, your friends are old too. Old ladies, mostly. Why not? You’re an old man. Betsy, 59, Ina, 65, Julia, 76, Helen, 78. You drive Helen to work when her ride is late. You drive Betsy to the airport at 7 am for a flight to visit her sister. Later, your friend John, 58, knocks on your door. He’s going to visit friends in Wisconsin. Will you feed his cats while he’s gone? Sure, why not?
You get old, your dreams constrict. You no longer expect fame and fortune, your face on the cover of Time. You no longer expect to write the Great American Novel, 859 pages. Your writing gets small. Fewer words. But cleaner, you hope. More nuance, less obvious. Subtle, you like to think. Like your life. Small essays about getting old. They please you just as much as if you wrote War and Peace.
You get old, you cry more. Not over your lost dreams, your sins, your old age, your impending death. You cry for others. You cry when Assumpta dies too young, at 30, in Ballykissangel. You cry at the sight of our soldiers in camouflage walking through airports on their way to Iraq. You cry at the sight of abused dogs and cats staring at you from the pages of newspapers. You cry when Betsy tells you she has inoperable cancer and she’ll never see 60.
You cry for everyone but yourself because you have lived a wonderful life, and you wish that every person, every pet, could live such a life too. When you were young, you cried only for yourself.
This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Men’s Journal.