How Old Do You Feel?

And I will never grow so old again. — Van Morrison, Sweet Thing

Numbers

I’ve been part of a dance community for 20-plus years. Back in the day, we would say: I’m always going to dance, even when I’m old. It keeps you young. There was an implied belief that if you just keep dancing, you will defy the process of aging and disease.

That only works until it doesn’t. Now in my 50s, I’m told I’ve “aged gracefully.” I appreciate that, but don’t mistake it for how I feel. If I were a car, I would have traded myself in for the worth of a few salvageable parts. I often feel like a worn-out junker and wonder how much longer this thing will run before it completely breaks down.

At the same time, I often feel young and free, especially when I’m silly and make myself and others laugh. In those moments, I am a nine-year-old boy. I like him. He’s fun and full of mischief. No matter how dark life gets, he’s always ready to pull tricks out of his bag and entertain. Admittedly, he’s been more active in better times, just like a nine-year-old child might hide in his room when he senses tension in his parents.

Sometimes I’m a 21-year-old woman, especially when I dance. She embodies the joie de vivre without a care in the world. I don’t know where she gets her energy. She enjoys life. She hopes and dreams. In the throes of cancer, she disappeared completely. She resurfaced after treatment once I felt well enough to join her on occasional outings. I’d forgotten how much I missed her, but she took no offense. She was just happy we could dance again. In fact, she helped me to heal physically and emotionally. I’m so glad she didn’t give up on me all those times I couldn’t keep up.

There’s also an old soul who lives deep within who has lived far longer than my chronological years. I’ve worked hard to provide an inner room for this old sage to reside. She never let’s go of my hand and provides glimmers of light when I’m blinded by darkness.

Often I feel my age and I’ve always been at peace with that. Cancer, however, made me age rapidly beyond anything I’d ever known. In cancer years, 50 is the new 80, 32 is the new 55, and children completely skip youth.

During treatment, the caregiver and I went for a slow, easy hike at Topanga State Park. I felt weak, but had to get out of the house and in nature. As he drove the car to the parking kiosk, an elderly woman, about 75, greeted us. She was clearly in her latter years, but brimmed with life. While she could have been my mother, she was younger than me. Within a month’s time, I was 53 going on 97. This elder’s vibrancy juxtaposed against my lack slapped me awake to cancer’s toll. I could barely walk a half-block without getting winded. I needed help with household chores and errands. I had full control of bowel and bladder, so for that reason alone, I will deduct five years to age 92.

When I see cancer patients in their 20s and 30s who have chemo or other harsh treatment, I see young adults who have aged beyond their years. I see women prematurely enter menopause and men lose their virility. During treatment, they are transformed into 57-year-old menopausal women. Instead of thinking about romantic attractions or getting some, building careers or getting married and building families, they hold onto life as best they can, just surviving each day, hoping when they’re older, they will be young enough to recapture their lost youth.

In some ways, those with cancer never feel young again. Not ever.

To feel young is to feel immortal.

To feel young is to enjoy a body unhampered or unlimited by disease that goes where it wants to go when it feels like going.

To feel young is to not know from high maintenance just to keep the body running.

To feel young is to enjoy life today.

To feel young is to hope and dream for tomorrow, and believe it will all come true.

On the other hand:

To feel old is to comprehend that you will die. No, really.

To feel old is to understand that anything can go wrong without warning.

To feel old is to realize what you thought was secure or set in stone is not.

To feel old is to genuinely appreciate the good times because nothing lasts forever.

To feel old is to feel too sick and tired to enjoy life.

To feel really old is to feel sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.

Some feel forever young. Others feel old before their time. How old you feel often has little to do with chronological age.

As I’ve healed from cancer, I’ve slowly grown younger. Remember the 21-year-old dancer who was MIA during treatment? She’s back. She goes out of her way to reacquaint me with life. She even resurrected an old dream I thought permanently quelled by cancer. Sometimes she wears me out, but we’re learning to balance each other’s needs.

I still feed and care for the old soul. She’s a bit serious, but has a calming effect on me, especially when it’s dark.

And the 9-year-old boy? I gently knock on his bedroom door and whisper through the open crack. “It’s safe now. You can come out and play.”

Sweet Thing by Van Morrison

Comments

  1. It’s sure not for the faint heart~ed sissies, this business of growing old…gracefully OR awkwardly~ Sometimes, i still feel 20 and it almost always surprises me. Sometimes i feel 100 and that never surprises me. I could…go on and on…but i need a nap… so i can go on & on!
    🙂 Jory

    • Jory, who knew back in the day that we’d be here so many years later talking about how old we feel. Excuse me, but I need a nap too. zzzzzz

  2. A great post. Never in a million years would I have expected to feel so crappy after becoming a survivor. I thought that the lousy part was just the surgery, chemo and radiation. Surprise! Not the reality. 49 year old Kim feeling like 79 year old Kim.

    • Kim, unfortunately, your experience and mine are far too common. As hard as treatment was, I also found afterwards to be harder on many levels. It means a lot to commiserate with other survivors who get it. I really appreciate your comment and hope you feel younger as you get older.

  3. Eileen, I have always felt older than my age. At 7 I had all my adult teeth. I developed very young too. I was the youngest in a class of 57 students. And there’s more. Then I got breast cancer at 32. I’ve always felt mentally older because of life’s circumstances.

    Physically, I was always very athletic and energetic until chemo happened. I find it hard to get back in shape but would love to feel the same way I used to. It would take a lot of work.

    I do have a complicated relationship with my inner child. I feel everything I’ve ever done is for her. Until I had a dream where I interacted with my 6 year old self and she told me I needed to change. After trying to protect this child all these years she claims she is OK and doesn’t need protection but that I need the protection (if you recall from my “random facts about me” post, I take dreams seriously).

    I used to feel like I was multiple ages before cancer happened. Now I feel like I am bouncing between an old lady and a little girl. Maybe something I should write about one day.

  4. Beautiful post, resonates as I, too, think about how old I am, feel, look as I face my forties and life after a breast cancer diagnosis.

    • Jenny, I’m guessing your forties will be much better than your 30s considering your 30s brought breast cancer. Here’s my wish for you: that your 40s will give you back some of what your 30s took away. xo

  5. Such an interesting post. Just the other day I said my 91-year-old mum that I feel I have had a taste of old age through having cancer and going through chemo. Aches, pains, struggling to move around, forgetfulness, a raft of drugs to take each day… At the age of 52, I have more in common with my mum than I should at my age!

  6. Eileen, I was born with an old soul, which extended into my teenage and college years. But my body was so young. I look younger than my age, and I felt younger than my age — until cancer. I think I still look younger, but I feel older since cancer and have never quite felt the same. We must’ve had a mind meld; I wrote about the same topic here: http://bethgainer.com/aging-ungracefully/. I really loved your post, very insightful.

    • Beth, we are on the same page. I just read your post. Funny how that happens. If it weren’t for other bloggers writing about the same things, I would wonder what’s wrong with me. I wish what we go through weren’t so universal, but it’s comforting to know “it’s not just me.”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: