Coming of Age

One day, I knew in my head, I wanted to be one of them

By Billy Hirschen

I can still feel the knot in the pit of my stomach when I noticed it for the first time. Arnie couldn’t reach the counter where his food had been ever since we moved here to Wilmington. He’d been leaping the three feet from the floor to the countertop with the ease and grace of a dancer, leaving Emma, his chunkier feline partner, both envious and admiring.

But it wasn’t until it happened a second time, in a different venue — this time a shelf in the hallway closet, when he fell backward and landed with a thud — that I truly realized how old he was getting. After years of easily lofting himself to wherever his target might be — a countertop, a closet shelf or any number of destinations that drew his attention — he could no longer assume a smooth landing.

Watching him walk away in recognition of his failing, his head held high, I could sense him gracefully making the adjustment from what he used to be able to do to what he couldn’t do anymore. I couldn’t help projecting myself into his world. Just like Arnie, I’m aging too.

Call me crazy, but there’s a big part of me that’s enjoying getting older. Every year, I seem to get a little more comfortable with myself, more appreciative of the effort it’s taken to get to where I am today, more forgiving of the choices I made that turned out differently from what I had hoped for myself at the time. I find comfort in the wisdom that I’ve gained through the years, wisdom that nourishes me in spite of mistakes made. In short, I’m experiencing aging as a great healing, an opportunity to incorporate all I’ve learned into the choices that I make for myself every day.

It’s unbelievable to be turning 70, which will be happening in a few short, precious months. Who turns 70? Our parents? OK. Our grandparents? For sure. But us? Me?

I’ve always been aware of getting older, but it didn’t occur to me until a year or so after I had both of my hips replaced that I was actually aging. Unlike the broken ankle I sustained in my early 20s after a clumsy move on the basketball court, I didn’t bounce back right away from the surgery on my arthritic hips. The ankle never bothered me again, but after the hip replacement, I gradually began realizing that things weren’t ever going to be the same anymore. Gardening and landscaping, lifelong pleasures of mine, were becoming more of a chore than a pleasure, with all the bending and kneeling. Those once graceful movements on the dance floor were no longer quite so graceful, and my magic moments climbing in the mountains were increasingly giving way to the comforts of going to the beach.

At first I thought the surgery may have been flawed, but I was assured by my surgeon, and reassured by second and third opinions, that the surgery was fine; it was my age. The symptoms, I was told, were age-appropriate and no fault of the surgery. Welcome to the golden years, I could almost hear them telling me.

Occasionally someone will tell me that I look younger than I am, and that’s always nice to hear. But frankly, I’m more impressed with someone my age who combines a fair amount of physical agility with a graceful approach to aging. That is the way I try to live my life these days, with a high regard for having reached my age, with gratitude and a sense of enthusiasm and possibility no less vibrant and spirited than in the ’60s, when I was coming of age.

Maybe that’s the reason, when I retired, I started taking dancing and guitar lessons. Maybe that’s the reason I took my motorcycle across the country and moved from New York to Wilmington. Maybe that’s the reason I would still like to be in the right relationship with someone again. I still have desires today that are no less meaningful to me than when I was younger. Like a flower seeking the light, I still have dreams that may be smaller in scope but not irrepressible. That’s the ticket: desire; keeping it alive and well.

And here’s the thing: I always knew that I would enjoy being an older person. How I’ve admired the older folks I’ve met through the years. They were kind and understanding when I was growing up. A few of them were the angels who appeared at critical times offering the support I needed, and others became the wise elders who taught me things about life I didn’t learn growing up with family and friends. For whatever reason, I was always able to relate better to them than to my own contemporaries. One day, I knew in my heart, I wanted to be one of them. And now, lo and behold, I am.

This attitude of mine probably grew out of several experiences that were part of my formative years. When I was about 12 years old, a bedridden woman and her severely handicapped husband were neighbors of ours — Mr. and Mrs. Biskin. Somehow, I was the one who ended up going over to their home every morning before school to help Mr. Biskin get dressed: socks, shirt, pants and everything else he needed to ready himself for the day. In some way, the compassion I developed for this man and his long-suffering wife outweighed the complaints and discomfort I had at the time about doing this.

I must confess, however, not that I enjoyed the task, but that it harbored in me an appreciation for older folks and the process of aging. I grew up with essentially no grandparents; three of them died in the Holocaust, and the one surviving grandfather never learned English, lived hundreds of miles away, and barely knew who I was. I never got to experience that special kind of love and devotion that emanates from an older version of one’s parents. Helping my elderly neighbor put on his underwear wasn’t exactly the relationship I was looking for, but it provided me with the experience of having been appreciated by a kind, vulnerable and older human being.

I see much possibility in the days ahead. It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve come to know that the person whose opinion I cherish most now is mine. That’s not been the way I’ve lived my life. I wasn’t taught it and I didn’t learn it, until recently. I learned it as a result of experiencing life, embracing my mistakes and treasuring the moments when I got it right. Life, living, taught me this. Aging, which gets a bad rap in our culture, taught me this.

No one lives forever. That’s why I live my life as I do, like a loose garment that one day will have to be shed. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to miss out on the wonders of conscious aging. My best teachers haven’t been the educators and the mentors I’ve had along the way. No, my best teachers have been the experiences of my life and the lessons they’ve taught me — to embrace and honor myself and my process.

By golly, if Arnie can hold this head high as each day passes, so can I.

Billy Hirschen is a retired educator and was the 1984-85 New York State Teacher of the Year. He has lived in Wilmington since 2016.

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