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This past week, I had a fascinating text exchange with one of my very best friends. We have known each other for more than forty years. We met in college—and no, this friend isn’t Kevin J. Anderson. This is another friend. We worked in different professions, but we’ve been at each other’s side, either physically or virtually, for decades now.
He’s retired now. I met him while he was a late-returning undergraduate, looking for a new career. Then marched beside him through the milestones, from getting an advanced degree through marriages and divorces (his and mine), children (his), successes, failures, and the health challenges that we’ve both suffered over the years.
We talked about the life trajectory this week, because my one class per semester at UNLV keeps bringing up bits of the past. This week, I watched a couple of students bond on a project. Over the past month or two, I watched them get to know each other and slowly become each other’s support system. Whether that lasts another forty years—or even six months—I don’t know. But they’re working on it.
I’ve seen a few other friendships grow too. These kids are just beginning to figure out who they are deep down. Watching that discovery is great. I think I finally understand why my father, a college professor, got so inspired by his students. I’m seeing it in real time.
But my friend and I also discussed age. He has one of those time-markers—children—that I don’t have. So it’s easier for me to pretend that I’m the same as I was in my forties (I’m not; I’m healthier) or that time really hasn’t passed—not unless I look at my hands, and see how they’re aging. They don’t look like mine anymore. They have the same short stubby fingers that my grandmother’s hands had, and now I’m starting to get that same web of lines that she had.
Occasionally, articles hit me hard as well. One, a Buzzfeed clickbait piece, said, You’ll Never Guess Who Is In Their Mid-Sixties! And I thought: Sure, I would, followed by…Crap! I’m nearly to my mid-sixties.
That was a bit earth-shattering in the weirdest of ways. The societal message about growing older, which means in U.S. parlance that I’m becoming less relevant. My friend mentioned that he has a lot of time now because he’s retired, and he struggles with that, although he doesn’t want to return to his old job. It intrigued him thirty years ago, and left him battered by the end. He doesn’t want to return and he doesn’t want to reinvent himself…yet. I suspect he might, though.
It gets worse: I’m female, and the message in American society is that older women are not beautiful or attractive or even interesting. Except that there’s this undercurrent of Don’t mess with grandma, implying that women my age, particularly in non-white cultures, have a lot of strength and power.
I was raised by a weak alcoholic woman who constantly told me that I would have to bend my life to my husband’s (as she did) and who got progressively weaker as she got older. I became quite good at negotiating hospitals because my alcoholic parents had to be taken to the ER with startling regularity (don’t ask). I learned, as a teen, how to ask the right questions and get them in and out quickly.
The survival skills you acquire…
Anyway, my role models, except for my grandmother who was 69 when I was born, were not very good ones. And even my beloved grandmother wasn’t a good role model on aging. She would often go to the hospital herself and then we’d get a call: Hurry! We think she’s going to die! She didn’t. She outlived my father, a few grandchildren, and at least two great-grandchildren, dying years after her hundredth birthday.
For decades I held her up as a beacon, but she was lacking in a few other areas as well. She hadn’t had a career. She’d been a housewife and not the best one, since she really couldn’t cook. (She could bake.) She didn’t have a career to fall back on or one that interested her or kept her active. Neither did my mother. My father retired at 75 and died within six months, just like his father who, at age 69, retired in January and was dead by March.
My brother was deathly afraid that when he retired, he’d follow the Rusch male tradition and leave the planet a few months later. Thankfully, he lived another 15 years after his retirement and might have made it longer if it weren’t for the sacrifices he made for others during Covid.
Of course, no one else in my entire family had a career in the arts. Not a one. My mentors in the writing field were…mentors. They were people I knew and, in some cases, cared deeply about, but not people I observed in everyday life. I knew how long they lived and I also knew that almost all of them (with one exception) kept writing until the day they died.
Knowing that…and seeing that…are two different things.
I turned sixty during Covid, and then pretended that I hadn’t. I stuffed that birthday aside, and the next, and the next…during which I got sick, for the first time ever on one of my own birthdays. I had weird health problems this year, maintenance stuff that required minor surgery or some changes in habits.
Dean had a serious health crisis this past year as well. He’s ten years older and remarkably healthy, but he has age-related problems too. He said to me, in the waiting room of our third medical professional’s office last June (two for me; one for him), that we had better get used to this: seeing doctors was our future.
And that sent me into a mental funk. The word “future” and “doctors” became a nightmarish vision of all those ERs of my teen years, carting unwilling and belligerent adults around, driving without a license to get them to and from some kind of help that they didn’t want and ultimately never took.
I suddenly saw the next decade or two as a long slow decline with only death at the end of it. Most people would say I came face to face with my mortality, but that’s not really true. A few near-death experiences of my own, as well as losing my high school best friend to breast cancer at 36 and other friends throughout the past three decades, made it really clear that death comes for us all whenever it’s ready and not a moment later.
I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on, besides the age. I wrote less during Covid and just after, something I discussed in a post called “Assessing Pandemic Damage.” Also, a writing project has been holding my muse hostage for almost two years now, as I madly write to get to the end of a series. (This has happened before, with the Anniversary Day saga in the Retrieval Artist series, and I’m sure it will happen again.)
I’m able to write other things while this project continues, but not other big projects…which sent my subconscious into a different tizzy, couched in terms of aging.
I write in a lot of series. Some are open-ended, but a few aren’t. I know how they will end. I have a book in mind for one of my series that takes place about a decade after the death of my main protagonist. I want to get to that, even though it will probably piss off readers.
Stupidly, as I contemplated the years ahead, I calculated how many series I have, how many other possible novels I’ve already thought of, and some vague writing projects that I’ve wanted to do for twenty years now…and had the I better write faster thought. Because I was afraid I’d die before I got to all of them.
I figured out that I am in the last third of my life, and that I’d better hop to so I can complete everything. That added to the doctors/decline panic I was already having. It didn’t matter how many discussions Dean and I had about realistic time. If this is the last third of my life and provided there is no cognitive decline, well then, thirty years is damn near (not quite) as long as I have been with him.
Wow, has a lot changed in that period of time. Wow, have I written a lot. Wow, am I underestimating what I can do.
Those conversations weren’t helping. I intellectually knew that I had more than enough time to write everything and more, even with illness and life events. I had had more problems before I moved to Las Vegas, years when I had migraines 21 out of 28 days every month, and I still managed to get a lot done.
But nothing was getting through to that weird panic about the last third of my life. Then Dean and I had a very serious discussion about role models on the way to the second WNBA finals game on Wednesday. He pointed out that I really had no role models growing up—all that stuff I put above were things he helped me put together.
And then that game gave me a gift.
Midway through the game, two women helped an elderly woman into the nosebleed seats. Seriously, our seats are so high up that people who are afraid of heights have trouble climbing the very steep staircase.
These two women—obviously relatives of the older lady—helped her get up the stairs, but primarily, she did it on her own power. She was ninety-eight years old and fierce. She wanted to see her team in the finals.
She stayed until the final minutes, when the other two women—probably her granddaughters—insisted she leave before the crowd did. Fortunately for her, the Las Vegas Aces were so far ahead that there was no way they could lose as she headed down those stairs.
Still, she fought. She wanted to see the game through. But they convinced her, and down she went, watching the game more than the steep stairs ahead of her.
She was going to see her team win, and she did.
At ninety-eight she had a dowager’s hump and looked a bit frail, until you saw her face. That fierceness and intelligence. That determination. She was in good enough shape to take the stairs six times (there was a pit stop).
She needed to see something that no one could imagine in 1925, the year she was born. I do not know her history. I couldn’t tell from her size if she ever had athletic ambitions, not that it mattered. She had no hope of fulfilling them born as she was in those years.
But she saw something amazing—a championship team, two female coaches who were as fierce as the woman before me, and some players (on both teams) who are so great they could go toe-to-toe with most NBA players and beat them.
As I threaded my way out of the arena, I saw a lot of women wearing Aces jerseys with the words “Title IX” on them. Title IX, for those of you outside of the U.S., is the law that was passed in 1972 that prevents sex-based discrimination in education. It sounds straightforward, but it wasn’t. A lot of lawsuits happened to guarantee that women’s sports received the same funding as men’s sports in any school (from elementary forward) that receives federal funding.
I am too old to have benefited from that law, but those women on the court aren’t. They have opportunities because of it.
And they—all of them—are as much of a gift for me as the elderly woman who climbed those stairs with such determination. She is an example of what is possible going forward; they are examples of a world that neither she nor I could have imagined when we were young women.
Somehow, that conversation with Dean, the elderly woman, and the basketball games all coalesced into a change in perspective for me.
I can go into a slow decline because I have some ancient idea of what being in my mid-sixties means. Or I can live my life, day to day, not panicking about all that I will never complete by my death, but just getting things done.
I think the main difference between losing a friend at 36 and losing friends at 63 is this thought: At 36, I didn’t think I could be next—even though I could have been. Car accidents, cancer (like she had), some other issues I never considered might have taken me out.
But when you lose someone (lots of someones) at 63, it’s quite easy to see that I could be next.
What I had forgotten, in my narrow focus on mortality, was that nothing remains the same. Title IX changed life for women everywhere, not just in sport. But sport is where it is the most visible here in the U.S. That law came down 51 years ago—within my lifetime.
When we owned Pulphouse Publishing over thirty years ago, Dean insisted on having a lot of photos taken. These are the good old days, he would say…and you know what? He was wrong. We had better times ahead.
Sure, we had rougher times too. But the world we’re in now, with independent publishing, the ability to write, sell, and distribute our own books, is infinitely better. The life we’re living now, even with its preponderance of doctor visits, is better as well.
Aging is not a matter of perspective. We all age and change, every day of our lives. We bear the scars of our life—some of them physical, some of them mental. We also bear the triumphs.
So, changing my perspective won’t change the fact that I am creeping up on my mid-sixties.
Changing my perspective will help in a different way.
As I said, aging is not a matter of perspective, but aging well is a matter of perspective.
I can drink my way into a miserable future, like my mother did, rarely leaving the house. Or I can continue to lead a full life, believing that many things are possible.
Not everything. I will never play championship basketball on a national scale—unless it’s for seniors and I decide to dedicate myself to it. I’m not going to, though. I have books to write.
A lot of books to write.
And a changing world ahead. One I should embrace, like my nameless 98-year-old role model, rather than one that I should hide from and succumb to.
I could die tomorrow. We all could. I won’t know what the last third of my life is until the day of my death (and maybe not then).
So I need to stop worrying about the downsides of the future and embrace the fact that—if I live as long as my wonderful grandmother—I still have forty years left.
Hmmm. That means I won’t hit the last third of my life until I’m 68. That’s five more years than I thought.
And oh, I didn’t know Dean forty years ago.
So imagine what I can accomplish with 40 more years. I’m not sure I can.
Except, maybe, in vague terms….that include the words a lot.
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“Business Musings: The Aging Writer,” copyright © 2023 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2023 by Kristine K. Rusch