‘So. What do you want for your birthday?’
It is the annual question. And it was a question that this year, in particular, I didn’t want to consider.
Over the past few months, more than is usual, I’ve been struggling with the approach of my birthday. Turning sixty was forcing me, it seemed for the first time, to accept not just the reality of my mortality, but also the inevitability of those physical signs of aging – sagging skin, infirmity, the potential loss of mental acuity and memory, the window closing on experience.
I dread these things. I dread too the invisibility that comes with age. We creep closer to our ends looking backwards, seeing in our mental mirrors our youthful selves, feeling as if we were still twenty or twenty-five. But to the twenty-year-olds or the thirty-year-olds, even those in their forties, our sharp edges blur as our skin sags. We totter on the brink, all too often, of ridiculousness or, perhaps worse, child-like cuteness.
And why do I believe this? Haven’t I viewed those older than me in the same light?
Even the compassionate and sensitive young necessarily lack the experiential knowledge of how it feels to grow old. They can’t understand what it’s like to encounter that old person in the mirror when, inside, one feels no older than when one was twenty-five. And because they can’t appreciate that the old person’s daily experience is not, fundamentally, far removed from their own, it is we who are older who must do the heavy lifting of retaining relevance.
Only to a limited extent is there truth in what people keep urging me to remember, that age is just a number, that it’s all in our heads. Yes, in my head, I do feel twenty-five-years-old, but a wiser, more thoughtful, and less reactive twenty-five-year-old than the Lorraine of thirty-five years ago. It’s like being the twenty-five-year-old I wish I had been, back in the days when my face and body had the beauty, strength and stamina of a twenty-five-year-old. The reality is that the skin on the backs of my hands is thinning, that the ache in the bad shoulder burns every morning when I awake, and there may soon come a point when, much as I want to dance all night at a wedding, my moves will make me look ridiculous.
It’s the tragedy we all face, one way or another.
This is just part of the darkness I’ve kept at bay only with difficulty these past few months. I’ve grieved, too, lost opportunity and the failure to leave my mark. Even as I’ve worked to remain grounded in the experience of living in Salzburg, dread of aging and fear of my time running out have shadowed each day. I’ve had to remind myself daily to treasure my time here and all that it brings.
At the same time, daily life remains just that: quotidian. There are dishes to be washed and coffee grounds to be scooped out. The grocery marketing must be done and meals planned. Staying on top of the mess in the living room and office is no more romantic in Austria than it is in California. Simple tasks, such as making a doctor’s appointment, intimidate me still. And so the struggle to see my good fortune and hold onto joy in living requires more effort some days than others.
So Tuesday – my birthday – dawned. I woke up and went to my desk early, just as the gold crested the mountains behind me and gilded the trees that tower at the side of our house. I was sixty, and in the first fire of concentrated morning light, the trees glowed bright yellow-green, just as they did last week and just as I hope they will next year.
And how did I answer the question Himself had posed?
Laser treatment to remove the age spots? He was having none of that. A jar of the La Prairie cream my seventy-year-old friend with terrific skin swears by? I didn’t even ask.
In the end, only at the last minute, I asked for a Kindle. Though the romantic in me quailed at the thought of relinquishing the pleasures of well-thumbed pages and the richness of ink on paper, other desires won out. The selection of English-language books is limited here. Most titles, whether new or classic, must be ordered, a prospect that, when the mood is on me, fills me with impatience. The Kindle makes instant gratification possible, at least when it comes to books. And it turns out its design offers its own physical pleasures.
As for the rest of the day, its gold equalled the beauty of the gilded morning trees. We bicycled to the Altstadt and lunched on Mönchsberg’s height while looking over the blue-green Salzach and the domes and spires of the city. Then we took in the Giacometti exhibition at the Museum der Moderne. There were hugs from our Katzenstraße friends Sigrid and Edith as well as roses and wine. The warmth of tributes from Facebook friends overwhelmed me.
That evening, we had dinner in a picturesque Nonntal neighbourhood filled with graceful Baroque facades. Under a deepening blue sky, surrounded by warm scented air, we sat in the pretty garden of a Mexican restaurant. The illuminated Festung, perched at the edge of Mönchsberg’s bulk, watched us from overhead. In the peaceful evening, I enjoyed my annual margarita, continuing the birthday tradition I began thirty-five years ago.
And the twenty-five-year-old within enjoyed it every bit as much as I did.