Adolescence Redux

Toni Martin reflects on how the urgency of youth returns to post-50-somethings

Here we go again. A friend called to announce that she and her best friend from junior high, who lives across the county, both went to the eye doctor for specks floating in their eyes yesterday.  Luckily, neither one had a retinal detachment.

“It’s like getting your period at the same time!” She laughed and laughed.

At first, it didn’t seem so funny. We are all turning sixty, some in the past, some in the future. Crossing into old age. We should know about this sort of thing, right?  About the hair growing in new places - on a woman’s chin and in a man’s nose.  The breasts on the move again, down rather than out.  But there are still surprises. Our kids start to indulge us, which is way more scary than screaming.

When you were a teenager, you prayed Please let me not end up jowly and plethoric like that paterfamilias, even though you didn’t learn those words until college.  The girls asked then, ask now, Give me the grace of Lena Horne and the strength of Tina Turner and let him see both in me.  Lately, you tally the alarming number of people your age that you have to wait for or who have up and died, which is more disconcerting, and pray Keep me off a walker. They don’t fit in the aisles of the cool restaurants.

Remember how guys in college boasted about where they were going to travel when they graduated?  How they wouldn’t be tied down?  Sounds like what people say about retirement, doesn’t it?  And there’s going to be the same problem: money.  Except now there is money and health to worry about, where before it was money and pregnancy.  Health is the wildcard of being old.   You can follow rituals to protect yourself ... but you never know.  

And then there is the significant other issue.  Nothing else much counts.  If you haven’t found meaningful work yet, it’s too late.  It’s too late to have children, too. The girls are now widowed or divorced and dating again, sometimes each other. 

Can people actually fall in love at our age with the recklessness and precipitate velocity that the verb “fall” implies?  Yes, appears to be the answer, Yes, indeed.  And if it were not the answer, I would choose it anyway.

Men and women have time to shop together like teenagers, trying themselves on for size. You watch, the way you used to watch older teens dance, in order to memorize the steps.  The ancient couple shuffles to the fitting room hand in hand. The man stands and waves until she disappears, as though she were sailing off to the horizon.  Suppose, just suppose, a rogue wave came along and snatched her away? Crash. Where would he be then?  Waiting for her wet, cold body to wash into his arms, seaweed clinging, sand and salt. 

Some things don’t change.  The same people whose parents gave them the down payment for their first house now inherit money, so they will always have more than you do.  If you weren’t satisfied with the zipless fuck, Viagra isn’t going sustain you, either.  The skinny man with the wide eyes was, in his younger days, a macrobiotic, but  is now avoiding gluten and sourcing vegetables and ends up much the same - a story of rice, the small bowel, and no money

Your financial planner has no more clue than your college advisor did of the molten desire roiling close to the crust that threatens to break through and sweep away the senior housing and the dorm in one torrential flow, cracking beams and melting brick.  You care about more than paying off the mortgage.  Their lists do not define your possibilities.   Or maybe they know, maybe (in your paranoid vision) everyone knows and, unbeknownst to you, they get hazard pay for advising you and of course they get to retire early.

Everything feels like life or death again, just as it did high school.  Only music and poetry can approach the  intensity of your feeling.  You start to write a memoir, which you hide from your children, the way you hid song lyrics and  love poems from your parents.  After  one drink,  “Our house, is a very, very, very fine house…” makes you cry.  You wish you had paid more attention when those roads diverged in the yellow wood.  Sigh.

Take my hand.  We will sing Beatles or Motown together, in the dark, until we get our bearings.  Only the ophthalmologist will know our age, by how slowly the pupil accommodates.

Toni Martin is a physician and writer who lives in Berkeley.  Her second book, When The Personal Was Political: Five Women Doctors Look Back,  was published in 2008.

From Amazon: "When the Personal was Political is the first social history of the post-feminist generation of women doctors, told through the story of five women who met in the freshman class of UCSF medical school in 1973, formed a study group for mutual support, and maintained their friendships for thirty years, weathering motherhood and managed care. Feminism opened the door, and they walked through, clueless but committed. They were a unique group, sandwiched between the individual women pioneers of previous decades who were proud to "think like men" and the women students of today who take access to professional school for granted. The pioneers were the scouts in the male-dominated profession; this generation was the landing party. The book raises the question, "What does it mean to be a 'woman doctor' if 'a doctor' is a man?" Despite the greater numbers of women in medicine today, women medical students still face choices (pediatrics or surgery?) where gender matters. Dr. Martin's thoughtful analysis combines an insider perspective and a lively writing style."