James Taylor, a favorite singer-songwriter of ours, haunts me:
“Never die young and, never grow old, never give up, and never slow down…”
Big challenge, but I’m taking it up.
Now in my 70s and, by the grace of God, past dying young, I’m concentrating on “never grow old,” fighting it—in fact, fighting it on all fronts. I’m never giving up, although conventional wisdom dictates I slow down. But not one to fleet through life on the fast lane, I don’t really have to shift gears; I only have to keep my rather easygoing but deliberate pace.
If I sound a bit cocky, I have good genes going for me. I still have a handful of uncles—in their 90s!—to show me all the encouraging signs that I may just get there, not to mention a whole gang of relatives still having a time of it in their 80s.
Still, approaching mid-70s, one does find oneself too close to the frontlines. At family gatherings I have, more often than not, made it to the head table, with the rest of the elders. But again, I find that I love their company more than ever. I’m no longer awed by them; having come of age myself, I no longer envy their rich, gracious traditions. After all, I’ve caught some of them myself and now have my own yet to add, collected from my generation and from later ones as well.
But I do find myself listening to old folks with more appreciation and interest, and feel in default sometimes. I wish, for instance, that I had listened more to my grandfather, Rafael, a great storyteller who himself lived a life for the books. But belated realizations give one a chance to make up: I myself have, for one thing, more stories to write about.
Frankie Sionil José, the National Artist for Literature, a durable inspiration who celebrated his 90th on Wednesday at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, revealed his secret in a short speech: “Only the good die young.”
Well, among his guests were certainly a number who, like him, happily missed the mark; they have been going on and on and doing better and better at what they do best for art and culture, among other fields, and the nation, if not the world, should be the richer for it.
The night for sure was not Frankie’s alone but wife Tessie’s, too. Am I especially glad my husband and I didn’t miss the occasion. Anyway, we’ve made it a point to attend every milestone celebration we get invited to.
And, like many of my generation, I’m looking forward to celebrating my own milestone—my 75th early next year, although my BFF Bea celebrates before me, this month, and she’s been making plans like a debutante, bothering with every detail, down to the giveaways. She will be wearing a long Thai silk dress, not new, but hardly worn—and she’s proud to say it’s even a little loose for her now.
What she struggles with is keeping the number of her guests to the number of her years. In the end she has decided to make it a hen party, that way even managing to cut it to about half. A guest list mostly of widows has made it easier, although exemptions will have to be made for a few husbands who would be desperately lost without their wives on a Sunday lunch.
Bea’s own four boys insist on coming, but are taking a separate room in the same hotel, in the company of their boyhood playmates, Suters and Paternos, by their own rule, only boys.
My own guest list could possibly burst, too, since we’re also celebrating our diamond high-school jubilee around the time, and not a few classmates from both schools I attended, Maryknoll and the two St. Theresas, are coming from abroad.
My dad, who went at 91, always warned me how different it feels crossing into one’s 80s, so I thought I might as well enjoy the five remaining years of my 70s in a special way. I remember how, in his 80s, Dad was surprised by the image he saw of himself in restaurant mirrors: “How did I get to be so old, kiddo?”
Then he’d look around and almost always correctly realize he was the oldest in the room. “You don’t know how that feels, kiddo!” But he’d still find humor in it all.
I’m myself still recovering from the fact that I’m older than our president or the president of the United States of America or very possibly most presidents. Well, Francis is older, but only by a few years. And I just can’t imagine how it would feel to be older than the pope!
A 90-year-old grand lady of letters I’m very fond of is often heard to lament, “All my friends are either dead or deaf!” Apparently she hasn’t lost her good ear for prose, but she regrets having lost special friends, some of them too soon. She misses each one in a different way and her life has not been the same without them.
Me—I tend to extend hope to as far as another shot at life, and that’s why the words of the 80-year-old comedian Lynn Ruth Miller resonate with me: “I’ve reached the age when I’m seriously thinking about what I’ll be—when I come back.”