The Ambush of Aging

Like most people, growing older took me by surprise. My unwritten, handshake contract with the world was that I would be forever young. I was the baby of my family, the kid who everyone asked "How's school?"

I can still recall my eighth birthday, the cake from Sutter's Bakery with the marzipan airplane decorating the layers of chocolate and cream; its wings holding four candles apiece, and another for good luck on the cockpit.

I remember, my lovely older sister -- now long gone -- urging me to blow out those candles with one big whoosh, and the round of applause when I managed it. Alas, I have forgotten what I wished for but it surely wasn't to grow old but probably to grow up fast and try my wings -- not the marzipan kind.

I can recall that year as the year of my first pair of long pants, pants that I outgrew a few months after getting them. I grew up at a time when young boys wore corduroy knickers and you graduated into long pants from Brooks Brothers or Rogers Peet the temples of haberdashery. And now to my surprise I find myself much older than my parents were when they died, and I still cannot think of myself as being anywhere near as old as they were at any time of their lives. No, 80 is not the new 40 -- but if you are lucky it may be the new 79.

Age can wreak havoc. I've seen it take the health and the minds of friends and family. Nevertheless, I find that it gives us a choice: You can remember with joy, or recall with regret.

We can retire into ourselves and mourn the losses in our lives, the names crossed out in our phone books, the opportunities missed or bungled -- that summer house you should have bought or the ones you owned and should not have sold, and the time spent in doctor's offices, and the time not spent with people now gone.

You can sit in that stew of regret or continue going on doing what you love to do, and enjoying the company of those you love as long as you can. Time is such a trickster. I know that my wife and I will celebrate our 62nd anniversary on June 21 -- and I am still not 62 in my mind, I am still the small boy with his first long pants, so how did that happen?

Today I was visited not only by a new friend but by two of my three grand-daughters and their wonderful nanny. The only thing better than the spontaneous love of grandchildren is the boundless love you feel for them.

A few fools have died for love, but it is so much better to live for it.

Love of your mate, love of your children, grandkids, friends, pets, work, art, the world is filled with people, animals, and work worth loving. Hatred and envy are for cowards. It is far too easy, too safe. Loving is for the daredevils. It holds so many risks -- we lose those we love, and we are forced to feel so deeply, deeper than any eight year old trapped inside an older body should be obliged to feel.

I've had a lot of time to think about aging -- strangely by going back into my own boyhood in a soon-to-be published memoir, Spotless. One of the blessings of growing older is that the past begins to move closer to the present -- there is a wholeness and shape to life -- and we see it with a clarity that was denied to us when young. And we realize that aging is not a curse, a shameful part of life, a burden to others and to ourselves, but an opportunity to use our lives fully -- not only in the present but to look back with candor and with love at the life we experienced, and relive through memory the joys and sorrows of our youth.

And speaking of love, its time to walk my dog, Sam the Lab, in our splendid Central Park.