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How it feels to be 80

The only really upsetting thing about being old is realizing that I'm not going to see how everything comes out.
By Richard D. Leonard
Fall 2008 8.18.08

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For our family reunion in 2007, I wrote a piece and directed it only to the ten children in the family. The adults, of course, were able to listen. But for the next fifteen minutes, I talked only to the children 13 and under. This is part of what I said:

When I was about 7, in 1934, I figured out that if I lived to be 73, I would see the turn of the new century. That seemed like a good thing to me, a double bonus—you live to old age and you get to write the date with all those zeros. Wow!

My dad pointed out that since he was born in 1899, he had a chance of living in three different centuries. The problem was that he had to live to be 101, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to have a father around who was 101, particularly if he got to be like Aunt May, who lay continually in bed and hardly seemed to be human any more. Dad died at age 79, so at 80, I’ve already lived longer than he did. But his mind left him long before his body gave up.

Will you live to be 80? Sadly, some of you will not. Statistically, it seems to be inevitable. But the good news is that most of you will. Your chances of reaching 80 years old, now that you’ve been lucky enough to get this far, are very good. A few of you will even reach 100.

When you’re 80 and looking backwards, you not only see your childhood in great detail and know that you are very much that child, you see all those middle years that young people haven’t reached yet, when important decisions are made—what schools you’ll go to, what you’ll do for a living, whom you’ll marry (if you marry), how you’ll raise your children (if you have them).

But you know, looking backwards, even at painful things like having to get divorced, or getting fired from a job you thought you were doing well, those years seem less important than the childhood years, being shaped by your parents, your schools, and your friends.

Of course, being 80 years old isn’t just about reliving childhood memories. We’re not much good to anybody if we can only look backwards.

I’m looking ahead and realizing that I may well live to be 100 or more. And so may Polly. And so may Louise and Jim, and some of you.

If I were playing baseball, I’d say that I’m on third base now, but I want to come home, even with a slide. Think what any one of us can do over a twenty-year period. Think of how many ears of corn you can eat in twenty years if you take over being responsible for meals in your house! Think of the parts of the world you can see that you still haven’t seen.

If you can still manage to do one good deed every day until you are 100, and not be a vegetable like Aunt May, they all add up, and you can bring a lot of happiness to people. And help yourself to another ear of corn.

This brings me to the final thing I have to say:

For me, the only really upsetting thing about being old is realizing that I’m not going to see how everything comes out.

I would like to know how long our country will keep its troops in Iraq.

I would like to know whether the planet Earth just gets warmer and warmer until areas are flooded and it becomes, eventually, uninhabitable for humans.

I would like to know if we’re ever going to discover other intelligent beings in outer space, and if so, how we’ll react to the news.

I would like to know what the history books will be saying about President Bush a hundred years from now.

I would like to know if terrorists are able, some day, to destroy New York City or Washington, D.C., or whether efforts for peace will develop in time.

I would like to know the year the Detroit Tigers not only win the American League Pennant, but also win the World Series.

I would like to know who in this room might live to be 100 and be able to do what Nanny Politzer did on her 100th birthday, which was to give a major speech to 700 people, without notes. I can’t do it now, and I’m only 80.

To me, the unhappiest aspect of being old (and I have to admit that I am now officially old) is knowing that I won’t be around to see everybody’s plans work out or fail to work out.

I look at my body, which is gradually getting older and older, but I know I am also that kid who once threw a snowball into a baby carriage, and the two things don’t quite seem to belong together.

I can say one more thing. No one has to feel sorry for someone who lives to be 80. Those of us who have lived this long are the really lucky ones in life, to have been born in the United States in the early twentieth century and to have escaped all the dangers that life has for each of us and to be able to be here today with our remarkable family. We could just as easily have been born into a poor country and literally have starved to death before we were five years old.

I feel at this point, that life owes me absolutely nothing. After all, I could have been born a dragonfly and been snapped up in the first day of my life by the tongue of a frog.

That’s how it feels to be 80 years old. I hope that all of you have the same experience, of someday, a long time from now, being 80—maybe even 100.

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