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Published: Friday, 7/25/2003

Ageless - if only in the mind's eye

BY KENDALL DOWNS

I look down at my hand, spread out across the page of a book I am reading, and suddenly feel old.

There it sits, fine and not-so-fine lines marking the spaces between more heavily wrinkled knuckles ... and it looks old.

Skin slightly shiny, veins standing out, my hand, I thought, gives away my secrets in a way that my gradually graying hair and slowly growing waistline have not, yet, done.

I didn't mind turning 50 three years ago, at least no more than I had minded turning 40 or 30. There was, after all, no discernible difference between the way I felt on the last night of my 40s and the dawning of my 50s.

Age doesn't work that way, and that's what makes it so insidious.

Each day you wake up feeling pretty much the way you did the day before. You do the things you did the day before, and life is good.

Then, age reaches out and zaps you when you're least expecting it.

There is no creeping realization that you're not as fast, or strong, or resilient as you were before.

Age makes itself known instead in sudden small epiphanies that leave a sense of loss - a gap between the anticipated and your new reality.

Perhaps the first instance, because it happens frequently by the time you're in your 30s and can occur as early as your 20s, is when you begin to notice people you consider young - but not juvenile - employing a more deferential tone in their conversations with you.

“Don't call me `Sir,'” you say, “that's my father,” before realizing that they are calling you “Sir” exactly because you look old enough to be someone's father.

This initial foray into aging is usually explained away by saying that to “them” - young people whom you already are subconsciously identifying as a separate group - everyone looks old.

Other revelations are less easy to explain away.

After 40 years or more of sleeping on your right side, left arm beneath your pillow, you wake up one day and can't lift your arm because the muscles have lost their resiliency and it can't take the weight of your head through the pillow any more.

Another morning you realize that your face is almost up against the bathroom mirror as you shave, but you can't remember having moved closer.

Then comes the day when your mind remembers what your body is supposed to do on the basketball court or baseball diamond but your body has forgotten.

I'm not talking about not being able to jump quite as high or losing a step. This isn't about a few aches and pains after the first day on the slopes each year. You can always convince yourself that these are a matter of being out of shape and can (but probably won't) be fixed.

I'm talking about driving down the lane, planting your foot to soar toward the basket, and getting no air at all ... nada ... zilch; earthbound because of a total breakdown of all the mind/body connections that make jumping possible in the first place and that you've taken for granted since you were 10.

In fact, the mind is the enemy of age.

Close your eyes.

Shut in here with just your mind for company, unable to see your receding hairline or expanding waistline, blissfully unaware of the sagging under your arms or chin, how old are you?

In here, where the me that is the most essential me lives, I'm still 18 - maybe 21 - although my wife would say 12.

The exact age isn't important. What's important is that you definitely aren't 50 or 40 or probably even 30, and it's exactly because you aren't that these “small epiphanies” are so surpassing - and so disturbing.

Perhaps if we were more aware of encroaching age, if we could say to ourselves, “OK, my arthritis is marginally worse than it was yesterday, and I know it will be imperceptibly worse tomorrow,” we'd be able to grow old more gracefully.

Or, just perhaps, we are able to grow old gracefully precisely because the mind so staunchly refuses to recognize the body's growing limitations.

I don't have the answer to that question, but I do know that when I look into the eyes of someone in their 80s or 90s, I like to imagine that I can see a hint of the 18-year-old who still lives within.



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