I have a relatively small working vocabulary, and this is probably the first time in my seventy years that I’ve used the word “penultimate.” Google helped me spell it. But I couldn’t think of a better way to describe what’s occasionally been on my mind lately as I’ve contemplated my remaining years and pondered not death, but the preceding chapter, wondering what “old age” will be like, and when it will arrive—knowing that it could gradually sneak up or come suddenly. And I wonder, too, whether I’m just a neurotic outlier, or if others passing through this twilight stage of life are also pondering what will become of us in the not-to-distant future.
There was a parade at my fifth Tufts college reunion in 1979 that has forever stuck in my mind. My graduating class of 1974 was lined up at the back of the procession, preceded by each class celebrating a multiple of its fifth graduation—each class holding aloft a flag displaying its class year. My friends and I were busy partying some distance away, wanting no part of the corny parade. But I watched briefly as the marchers trudged along a path at the top of the hill alongside Goddard Chapel. For the most part, there was nothing remarkable about the procession. From my vantage point, there were no striking differences as I scanned from the youngest troop at the rear to each of the next eldest classes—until, that is, my eyes passed from the class of 1929 to the class of 1924 at the front of the parade, celebrating its 50th reunion. I was stunned to see that in the space of five years these alums had seemingly fallen off a cliff and become a bunch of old people, many hunched over and traipsing slowly.
Our own 50th Tufts reunion is a mere eighteen months away. Although I certainly don’t love what I see when I look in a mirror, I don’t see an old man. But I wonder whether I’m just deluding myself: Do the young lawyers I work with, and other millennials and Gen Z’s I come across, see what I saw when I gazed upon the class of 1924 in 1979?
In important respects, I know that many of the surviving members of our class of 1974 are healthier than our 1924 counterparts. They didn’t have the same gyms, yoga and Pilates classes our generation frequents; most of them didn’t have the healthy diets that so many today do; and they certainly didn’t have Fitbits and Apple watches to monitor their exercise and sleep patterns. Not to mention the remarkable developments in medicine.
In that respect I’ve been especially lucky. Having survived cancer, open heart surgery, and several spinal surgeries, I’m playing tennis, biking in Central Park, dragging myself to the gym a few days a week, rowing at a snail’s pace on a Maine lake in the summer, walking a few miles a day, and taking jazz piano lessons. Although I constantly bitch to my wife that my younger counterparts cruise by me pedaling up the hills in the park or bounding up subway stairs, making everything I struggle to do look easy, I am living a rich, active life. I know well from experience, however, that that life can be turned on its head without warning. As I’ve watched friends have fluke falls that become debilitating or, in one case, fatal, while others lose their memory, I sometimes feel a little fragile these days. Like I’m just one slip away from falling off a cliff into the class of 1924 from which full recovery could be uncertain—especially because what was once my unusually good sense of balance is now anything but. Long past my days playing shortstop or full court basketball, my athleticism is now too often employed to avert disaster. And none of us can know when senility will rear its scary head.
So I wonder when my “old age” will arrive, what it—I—will look and feel like, and whether it has already begun. As I walk along the city streets I occasionally look at my reflection in store windows to check my posture—to see if I look at all hunched over like the old men in the Tufts parade. I make a special effort to straighten up, walk more briskly—and look “vital.” When a young man or women effortlessly walks by me I occasionally try to match their pace for a bit before deciding it’s pointless.
One reason I ponder old age with more than a little trepidation is because having watched older people—including my mother before she passed—I’ve seen that for many, old age is no fun. Physical woes mount, they lose a sense of purpose and an ability to do what they want, enjoy what they’ve loved, and go where they want. There are, of course, exceptions. A friend’s mother at 100 enjoying concerts and doing cross word puzzles; the former head of my law firm still sharp at 96. But so many seem miserable.
I try to envision what old age will hold for our currently healthier, active generation as we traverse our eighth decade. Will we sunset happily and ward-off the disintegration and unhappiness that so many coming before us have suffered? We’re certainly giving it our best shot: trying to stay in some semblance of physical shape and looking for ways to stay relevant, engaged, and mentally sharp, whether by continuing to work, volunteering, taking classes or music lessons, doing projects, or just getting out and having fun. Individual members of my class of 1974 will certainly experience their penultimate chapters differently depending on their personalities, health, relationships, and other individual circumstances. But on the whole, I like to think there’s hope that we can dodge the bullet of old age at least for a while. What has me contemplating my penultimate chapter is the unknown–the uncertainty of what is to come, and when.
I suppose you could say I’m having a “twilight crisis.” But, in truth, my navel-gazing exercise is hardly a crisis. Nine years ago I was emerging from the Dana Farber Cancer Institute with a significant chance of dying within one year of the bone marrow transplant I’d had in September 2013. With no assurance that I’d live 10 years, much less lead the active life I’ve been lucky to have since then, the last thing I would have dreamed of was being 70 and perseverating about what a penultimate chapter would look like 10 years hence. Like so many survivors, a lesson I learned from my medical experience was to appreciate life and make the most of every day. But as the distance since my transplant has grown, on too many days I lose sight of that lesson. If I’m smart, I’ll let the uncertainty regarding when my full-blown dotage will arrive serve as a reminder, a wake-up call to get over the fact that I’m slowing down, and make the most out of every relatively compos mentis day. We’ll see how that goes and, in the meantime, I suspect I’ll continue to contemplate my penultimate chapter every now and then.