"Early 60s," he proclaimed for all standing nearby to hear. "I'd say you're up to your early 60s." I wasn't even 60 yet, but I was thrilled with his pronouncement. What woman likes to be told she's older than she actually is? -- shockingly me.
But I had good reason. I was in my sixth month of physical therapy after an eight-hour surgery (and 17 days in the hospital) to correct my progressing scoliosis. I had to admit the therapist was right. I was so debilitated when I started physical therapy -- taking two naps a day, sitting up for just a few hours daily, walking no more than a couple blocks -- that after some early progress he estimated that my fitness age, not the way I looked or acted, was 75 or 80.
When I moaned, he answered, "You started out at 90." Sounds cruel, but it was true, and, his words were motivating since I had already improved and knew I could continue to get much better.
With exercise, not only did I subtract years from my fitness age, but I also acquired a fresh perspective on the passing years. This August I turn 60 and it's looking sweet. One of my friends, who just entered their sixth decade, tells me it's the first time she's struggling with age; but not me. Ironically the last birthday I fully embraced was 21.
At 30 I was waiting for surgery on an ovarian cyst. Worry trumped birthday joy. Besides I was unsettled -- not happy in my job, without a man and about to have surgery that could have impacted my fertility. By 40 I was married, but the weekend of my birthday my husband was traveling on business. To save money, he scheduled his trip to Denver for the days preceding his meeting. So on my 40th he was hiking the Rockies while I celebrated at Boston Chicken with my 3-year-old daughter. True, she was a child I once thought I might not be able to have, but without my husband something seemed askew.
By 50 I began to age with a little more grace, but I still had my mom and my mother-in-law alive, allowing me to maintain the illusion of relative youth. Since then, they have both passed away and my husband and I, except for one aunt in her 90s, have become the older generation. Without the protection of living elders, we're next in line, or at least could be, giving us little room to hide from age anxiety.
But this year post-surgery as I get back long-missing capabilities -- the ability to lift weights, do a full exercise routine and walk for extended periods -- I'm defying aging.
Admitting my real age was something my mother, Sally, cautioned me I should never do. She was a pro at age subterfuge. Her old-time movie-star looks -- some said Joan Crawford -- allowed her to belie her real age. For most of her life, her age remained an international secret.
My father died without ever knowing that she was one year younger than he was, not six as she always boasted. Because she was born in Russia, without a birth certificate, she could be any age she wanted. He wouldn't have cared about her fine-tuning the year she was born though he would have become apoplectic if he had known that she delayed her Social Security benefits by five years. In the last years of their life, their finances were lean, but for my mother maintaining an illusion of youth was the currency that counted.
Even though I tried to resist, her emphasis on appearances and youth became second nature to me. Normally, I tell people who are my age how old I am, but not those younger than me; and just like her, I reapply my lipstick throughout the day even with nowhere to go.
In writing this essay I'm breaking what my mother considered a major taboo, telling the truth about my age. But, I am following another one of her precepts -- counting backwards. This year I admit to my true age -- 60, but in the coming year I'm committed to getting younger in body and spirit.
And anyway, when you start out as 90, 60 isn't so bad.