In my twenties I had a strange paradoxical relationship with time and the notion of aging, so I engaged in preemptive measures to avoid something that I was certain would never come. I was a dancer living in a rat infested apartment on the lower east side of Manhattan. I was broke, but somehow I managed to have enough money for cigarettes and anti-wrinkle cream. I thought I would live forever (hence my lack of concern regarding my smoking habit as it related to my health), and, if I were to live forever, I had to stave off the ravages of smoking (as they related to my skin) because, hell, no matter how old I was, I had damn well look good. Of course, my idea of looking good at a ripe old age had nothing to do with aging gracefully and everything to do with preserving my twenty-two year old body so that it remained exactly as it was for eternity.
During those years, I was greatly inspired by my dance mistress. No, she had not discovered the secret of immortality, but she certainly knew how to age gracefully. At the time she was in her eighties and still teaching class and running her well respected contemporary dance company. At her advanced age, she was still beautiful. Her hair, dyed the same jet-black color it was in her youth, contrasted sharply with her ivory skin. She was an elegant bohemian, living across from NYU in a dilapidated building. She resided on the fifth floor which served as both her home and rehearsal space for her dance company and school. When she taught lessons, she didn’t stand in front of the mirror, cane in hand, and bark commands- she demonstrated. She danced-carefully, gracefully. And I would be remiss not to mention that she was as kind as she was beautiful. She called herself a Catholic Buddhist and introduced me to yoga. It was in her space that dance became a transcendental experience and I learned what it meant to be in spirit. It seemed that she would live forever…and she almost did, passing away in 2014 at the age of 97. Unfortunately, I had walked away from dance long before her passing, and, when the curtain fell on my life as a dancer, so too did my belief in immortality. But a long life…I still trusted in that.
It wasn’t just my dance mistress that led me to believe that life would be long. Three of my great-grandmothers also lived well into their nineties, and my grandmothers would make it to their mid-eighties. Even as I entered my forties, I was pretty convinced that I had plenty of time. I still continued to dream about what I would be when I grew up, making plans to one day go back to choreographing dances or writing the great American novel, or, being monumentally immature, both. Then the winter of 2014 came and everything changed.
I suppose a little backstory is in order. Both of my parents were diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. My father was diagnosed ten years ago, shortly after the birth of my son. My mother received her diagnoses three years later when I was pregnant with my daughter. Some of us were never fully convinced that what my mother suffered from was in fact Parkinson’s. Her lifelong battle with the world to be the sickest, most suffering, most ill-treated person in existence, had us skeptics, thinking, hoping, that, perhaps, her illness might be a bit psychosomatic. Anyway, over the past few years, my mother also began showing signs of dementia, and this past winter she took a sudden and shockingly severe turn for the worse and fell into a downward spiral, rendering her incompetent and landing her in a nursing home at the age of sixty-nine. Of course, the extreme stress of situation exacerbated my father’s Parkinson’s symptoms. And, suddenly, I realized that life might not be as long as I thought it would. Suddenly I began looking at myself differently. I was not a kid. I was a woman in my forties. I began to see the signs of age on my face, feel it’s gnarly crooked hand tugging on my body, making all the movements I did with ease in my youth, not so easy anymore. I began to feel crushed by the heavy burden of stress and sadness over the loss of my mother as I knew her, over the loss of life as we knew it, over the loss my children suffered, for, until last January, they saw my parents, who lived five minutes down the road, on an almost daily basis. Our already small family had become even smaller, and life became dark.
Over the past year, I have found myself making mathematical calculations and thinking thoughts like, “Let’s see. Mom is twenty-seven years older than me. That means that when she was my age now I was fifteen years old. But it doesn’t feel like I was fifteen so very long ago. Shit. That went by really quickly. What if I only have twenty-seven more years? That would bring me to 69. Twenty-seven years isn’t enough.” How lovely, these persistent thoughts are.
Fixated on the relentless, merciless tick of the clock, not wanting anything to pass too quickly, I also found myself clinging. Clinging to moments. Clinging to things that I thought would somehow keep time from slipping away-paper with my children’s scribbles, clothes my children had outgrown, toys my children were no longer interested in playing with. Anything really that related to my children-the great loves of my life-because, as we know, they grow up; they leave. All good things must come to an end, and ends arrive far too soon. Save everything. Make things last. Make things stay. That was my subconscious philosophy.
So the new year arrived and I found myself, after all this saving, faced with the daunting task of cleaning out our shoe closet-a task I had been avoiding for what are now very obvious reasons, but, given that the door would no longer close, I had no choice other than to begin. I had to purge it of all old, worn out and outgrown items. So I opened the door fully and took a long look. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Anyone familiar with panic attacks knows the sensation of a rapid heart beat and shallow breathe. And then the lump in the throat, the heat rising to the face, the ears. Fuck. No. This is getting done. I chocked it all in. Forced all that surge of emotion back down into the pit of my gut and set to work. I told myself I felt nothing. I grabbed old, dirty sneakers, and tossed them in the trash. I beat back images of my kids playing in those shoes. I dismissed very specific memories that would lurch into my mind of my little ones dressed in those very items I now discarded. I refused to acknowledge any feeling of loss. I coldly carried out my mission…until I picked up those Minnie Mouse shoes. My daughter’s Minnie Mouse shoes. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. For a million reasons and for no particular reason. Those I put away for safe keeping. I have my limits.
And so here we are. 2016. Clean closet. Only new shoes-except for the Minnie Mouse shoes. Those I will keep. Someday, when I am very, very old (hopefully), I will take those shoes out of the box they are now in and feel joy-joy over happy times, for a life well lived. There should be no sadness in happy memories.
So here’s to you. Here’s to life. May it be long. May it be happy. Let us walk in light, not in the shadows cast by others, by the past. Let’s preserve our memories in our minds and store a very precious few in our basements. Let’s throw on a pair of new shoes and dance on and on and ……………..