I hear them before I see them, their voices rising up in sing-song and echoing off the greenhouse dome that covers the pool at our local YMCA. I can't tell what they're singing, only that they sound happy and spry -- more like a schoolgirl choir than a pool full of women in their final decades. Crossing through the lobby, I can see them now, wielding day-glo noodles as they raise their slack, dimpled arms skyward, laughing and bending and jogging and singing and raging against those two great adversaries: time and the temptation to deny aging. There are no facelifts here. No distorted lips, no tummy tucks, every one of them a portrait of lumpy, vital, sagging perfection.
It used to be we had lots of chances to see real old age firsthand. American families lived in multi-generational homes, or in cities where seniors and grade-schoolers shared the same stoop. And always there were the churches, where families young and old, and singles in search of love and a place to belong, would gather together as if it were the most natural thing in the world. But we don't go to church much anymore, and if we do, we tend to cluster by age or politics or musical preference. As it is, the YMCA may just be the last true, multi-generational experience in America.
This weekend, I'll turn 51 and the fact of the matter is this: Age comes with spots, with wrinkles, with fannies that have lost their umph. Lips do not retain the fullness of youth, eyes do not stay alert at all hours. And I thank God every morning for these women who dare to bare their puckered thighs and their kangaroo midriffs and their bright, carefree smiles, shouting with their very presence that there are more important things in life than looking young. We need desperately to hear this. Because until we make our peace with the loss of our youthful appearance, we'll never be able to face the fact that we're all going to die one day.
Now, depending on whether or not you have any sort of faith practice, that is either a terrible thing for me to say or a simple truth that brings you only a passing sorrow. For me, everything I need to know about death can be summed up by a single line from St. Paul, "whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's." Now, I can't say what these beautiful old swimmers hold in their hearts as they splash and sway, but I have no delusions that their entire days are spent in this giddy state. They have lost things, these women: husbands, savings, relevance, daily contact with children and grandchildren who live worlds away. They know that their days are numbered and the quality of those days will be different from the ones of their youth, when they no doubt came to this same pool with young children, looking then like the visions of Esther Williams they hold now in their mind's eye as they twirl against the warm, forgiving water.
I took my mom to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel yesterday, a gem of a movie filled with nothing but 60- and 70-plus actors trying to find peace -- and perhaps something of the spark of youth -- in their last season of life. Depending on how deep we're willing to dig, to yield, to reinvent, anything is possible. Still, I don't imagine I'll be spending my old age in India (although none of them did either), or even in my imaginary "home by the sea," where I can read all day in a hammock swing while my husband Lon paddles out in the surf. More likely I will spend my later years in the pool at the local Y. Thanks to these beautiful old women who rise each day to celebrate the simple pleasure of moving their bodies and staying connected to the human family, this does not feel like a sad ending. In fact, I'm kind of looking forward to it.