Saturday, January 27, 2007

Reflections on my 68th Birthday

© 2007 by Julius Lester

Reflections on Reaching Age 68

Today I am 68. The number of years I have lived greatly outnumber the years I will live. I have more than 50 years of memories. I have a kind of quiet confidence that comes from having prevailed over the many challenges life presented. I also live with the pain of regrets about words and deeds that hurt others as well as sorrows at opportunities I was too shy to take advantage of.

But I like being old. Geriatricians classify age 68 as “young old age.” I accept. Please don’t say to me, as some have, “You’re not old,” as if being old is not desirable. I have earned these years, and I cherish them.

I have no desire to be young. I look at the young and do not envy them the struggles they will face – marriage, career, raising children, learning to live with stresses of all kinds without falling apart – at least, not often. At age 68 I can say that I really like my marriage, my third and final one; I was successful in my various careers, and the five children I helped to raise are grown and in the world and doing well.

As I near the end of my traversal through the sixties, I think a lot about death, even being curious as to what it is like – if it is anything more than the final sleep. Some of you may remember the Redd Foxx television show, and the scenes in which he would feel a twinge of pain, grab his chest, and holler, “Oh, Elizabeth! I’m coming! This is the big one!” (Elizabeth was the character’s dead wife). I understand now. When I was young and had a slight sore throat, I’d think I was coming down with something. Now I wonder if such soreness is a sign of throat cancer. Any little twinge of pain in the chest is a heart attack. But one of these days, a twinge of pain will be more than an intimation of my mortality. It will be the announcement of it.

I understand now why old people like to talk about their aches and pains. My body is beginning to break down, and I am fascinated by this. I have arthritis in my hands, the left one in particular, and the first joints of my little finger on the left hand, and the index finger on the right are detached from the middle joint. I played piano throughout my childhood and youth, and my adult years have been spent pounding typewriter and computer keyboards. The joints in my fingers have worn away, and now bone sits atop bone. Every couple of months I get cortisone shots in my fingers. The pain when the needle is inserted between the joints of my fingers is incredible, but brief.

My major health challenge is living with emphysema, which I’ve had since 1991. Although I stopped smoking on July 13, 1988, at 2:45 p.m., that was not soon enough to escape the damage done to my lungs. Except for needing oxygen when I fly or go to altitudes over 6,000 feet, my daily living, until recently, had not been effected. My pulmonologist has put me on supplemental oxygen to be used with exertion – going up stairs, working in the yard, etc. There is going to be a period of adjustment, as people get used to seeing me with a cannula in my nose, a portable oxygen tank over my shoulder, and I get used to being seen.

But I was amused and delighted when I learned that the name of the portable oxygen system is Spirit. In Hebrew the word for spirit and breath is the same – nefesh. My lungs are not in the greatest of shape, but my spirit? My spirit has never been stronger or more vibrant, or more wholly engaged by this incredible adventure of living.


"Life is short and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us, so be swift to love and make haste to be kind."

Henri-Frederic Amiel


Me at ages 12 and 62.