Bob Bergeron committed suicide at 49 -- just before the planned publication of his book, The Right Side of Forty. His suicide note, written on the title page, included this phrase about the book: "It's a lie based on bad information." Perhaps understandably, the publisher cancelled the book's release. So I can't judge the work that Bergeron lost faith in.
Presumably, Bergeron's mission in writing the book was to help spur a healthier outlook on aging for gay men. His disillusionment and suicide send the exact opposite message. However sad his choice might make us, we must not allow it to reinforce an outdated message of hopelessness regarding aging. If aging is a failure, then we all fail.
The colleagues and friends who encouraged me to write about this incident and its implications for gay men hope that I can present an argument that Bergeron was wrong, that both sides of 40 are viable, that as we age, the gains outweigh the losses.
I did visit Bergeron's website after reading about his death. It is markedly optimistic and positive on the surface, but for me his unacknowledged shadow was lurking. When naming his New Year's resolutions, Bergeron included no longer "lying about my age." It is telling that he was still working at this simple truth. Of course, I understand how our society in general, and gay culture specifically, encourages "passing" as younger -- and why wouldn't he have internalized the rampant ageism that we all are exposed to? Bergeron was not yet convinced that his real age was OK -- a damaging state he shared with so many of us.
Countless gay men have come to believe that their value has a shelf-life, that aging is a one-way path to loss and despair. If tight skin and a six-pack are the summation of our worth, we are definitely in trouble. But being on the planet for 40 or more years allows for spiritual and psychological enrichment. Life presents opportunities along with the challenges.
That Bergeron wrote his book, in part, to convince himself that getting older is OK is something I can relate to. My column, The New 60, now a book, was a testing ground for my own issues about turning 60. Did I really believe that I was fine with it?
I have an advantage that Bergeron may not have had: I have outlived myself. My long relationship with AIDS and HIV made turning 40, then 50, and now 60 a bonus. Post-catastrophe living bolstered by post-traumatic learning have changed my perspective on aging. Of course, I have my moments of doubt. My skin no longer fits as well as it did a decade ago. My knees ache. I may not have the financial resources to live to 80 or 90 comfortably. However, having lived through near death and great loss, I am confident that I will handle the continuing challenges. That I've learned and grown along the way is no small consolation.
My role models for aging are the men and women I know who have realized that the secret to contentment -- dare I say happiness -- is to find what we are doing now the most interesting thing in our lives, no matter how interesting and/or thrilling our earlier lives might have been.
My book, The New 60, is about my personal and professional perspective on aging in the 21st century, as a gay man, a survivor, a boomer. We are redefining aging, as gay men (and women). We are not elders in a traditional sense, as aging now allows for new levels of vitality and further chapters. We must embrace the experience that youth cannot yet have, and profit from whatever wisdom we have gained -- and share it with younger generations.
I'm saddened that I can't have this dialogue with Bob Bergeron. I'm sure that ultimately he could have worked through his mistaken belief that he was wrong about viability after 40 -- that he had resilience, that he could reinvent himself and find fulfillment and productivity. I can imagine encouraging him to use his considerable resources, internal and external, to create his 50s and beyond with curiosity and excitement. Work, sex, and social networking can actually improve as we come to terms with our journey and embrace the process of living longer.
His death is a cautionary tale, a reminder that we must deal with our fears and doubts and integrate them into our larger selves, that we must be mindful of the ageism that stalks us and remember that in the present we are able to experience life fully and vitally, no matter what we have been previously taught. Getting older is a challenge, an adventure, and an extraordinary privilege.