One of the Oldest People on Earth Interviews Others
The Age of Ages
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses good-bye
And watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
And even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the Capital of Paraguay.
~Billy Collins, from ‘Forgetfulness’
There’s a story we carry for ourselves, and it maneuvers in and out of the biological underpinnings and societal constraints to swing the mighty pendulum of time. We wrap this story into our days and present it as truth; it’s our own truth; it’s our emotional truth. It’s what guides us. To each involved, a lifetime of memories, and to each involved, mortal awareness, and among that, the question – is this the age I feel?
On The Duncan Trussell Family Hour, the podcast host, comedian and all-around entertaining Duncan Trussell, mentions how he’ll never forget what his grandmother told him. She was in her eighties and she said, “When I look in the mirror, I see this old woman, but inside I still feel fourteen.” Similarly, former punk singer, author, and all-around accomplished human being, Henry Rollins says on The Joe Rogan Experience, inside he still feels fifteen and he’s still acting out that fifteen-year-old’s aggression onto the world. He’s fifty-six. And that’s anthropologically interesting, I think, because I’m one of the oldest people on Earth at thirty-three, but these people are perpetual teenagers inside.
In a way, I can see how this can be. When I was fifteen I sent myself into a coma and came back a different person – a spirit swap of sorts. That pivot I can single out as the black cloud that follows, and thus is always a part of me. Duncan Trussell’s grandmother and Henry Rollins don’t come across as people who consider metaphoric black clouds on a day-to-day basis, but age, it turns out, is a symbiotic concept and daily march of the biological and the abstract, and a concept that rarely ever gets questioned in-depth on an individual basis. Conversation may allude to this phenomenon, but hardly in our uses of “I feel like an old man,” or “Her youthful exuberance,” or any number of clichés do we stop to unravel what is really going on.
The lines around our eyes appear in the mirror, and so “age-defying cream” sits on shelves across the world. “For external use only,” the labels read. The bald spot oasis forms like a capstone of the mortality within, and so there’s a mortality-defying shampoo for that. We also have the mid-life crisis, widely accepted, though mythical and tied almost suspiciously to more ways one can surge into hefty materialist purchases. People are also told to “act your age,” and so immaturity and precociousness are always readied to squeeze the ever-precarious average of youth, indoctrinating the young into an abstract subjective take on age with no firm basis except to be in a different position than one already is.
I push the bottom button on my IPhone. “Call Mom,” I say, but then I hang up before it rings. I push the button again. “How old are you, Siri?” Siri says in her usual patronizing tone, “A virtual assistant never reveals its age.” I push the button again and tell Siri to call Mom.
At eighteen, my mother gave birth to my sister, then to my brother six years after, and then to me two years after that when she became acquainted with accidents. “Matthew,” she called the accident. “It’s Biblical for a returned gift from God.” “It is not,” she says. My mother is sixty and she says she’s feeling tired and useless. “What good am I?” she says. “I feel old. I can’t even do steps. I had to quit my job at the bank because there were too many steps.” The frustration and underlying stress fluctuates the tone of her voice as tells me, “God made me with leftovers.” We both have a slant on the divinities affecting our lives.
My mother tells me she always acted older, even as a kid with six siblings, but also for a long time now the doctors have been telling her “That normally only happens to people older than you.” When I go to her house, her grabbing a shooting pain or coming out from the bedroom after sleeping off a headache is a regular occurrence. Now, after working hard her whole life, she and my step-father are struggling to pay the bills. A move to Florida remains out of reach – a moving goalpost to a community that excludes youth except for in letters, phone calls, short stays, and pictures on the refrigerator. “Every once in a while I’ll feel younger, though,” she says. When my nieces visit her, their unquestioned youthfulness pulls her along. A trip to Florida to keep the youth at bay and the weekly visits to keep the youth at her side sit at opposite ends of reason. My mother tells me to hold on.
Like my nieces, my friend Karla’s daughter says she feels thirteen because she doesn’t know how else she should feel. I suspect most kids and young teenagers are like this, but to try and find alternative viewpoints, I seek out a three-year-old with a walking cane and a thousand-yard stare. I can’t find one.
My mother comes back to the phone a few moments later. She’s taking care of an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s disease. Gladys, the elderly woman, was born in 1925. Gladys can’t remember her lunch, but she tells my mother what life was like when she was a little girl, when she met her husband, and when he built their house. Sometimes she mistakes her son for her husband in photos. The current neighbor boy becomes her son. Time slips away but resurfaces as if to say that it really hasn’t gone anywhere – but we have.
“What about Grandma?” I say to mother. “Did she ever speak of how old she felt before she passed away?”
A silence hangs between us.
Hardly ever do we remember the silences,
But it would be a mistake
To perceive the silences as powerless.
“My mom lived for seventeen years without my dad, and she talked like it was the worst time of her life. And when Earl,” he brother and youngest sibling, the only boy, “was killed in 93’, that crushed both of them.” My grandma was a strong woman, feisty to her last day, but both my mom and Aunt Sharon told me how my grandma wanted to go be with her husband and son. Age became her.
In the years prior to my grandmother’s death, she took on familiar elements of my depression as she stayed tethered to this world with an oxygen tube. “I just sit here and watch TV,” she’d tell me. “No one cares about me,” she’d say as I sat next to her. We’d talk about medications. She’d tell me how the doctors kept trying to put her on antidepressants. “I have every goddamn right to be depressed,” she’d say. And we’d often talk about Judge Judy, one of her favorite shows. On the day my grandma died, in the closing moments of the soulful illumination respite afforded the dying, I told her how she missed it today; Judge Judy got so mad she climbed over the stand and started swinging her gavel until the court officer had to hold her back. My grandma’s eyes were shut by that point, but her eyebrows went up and she appeared to become two months younger. It took her back to her recliner. She saw it. I saw her see it.
In 1993, when my Uncle Earl was killed at the age of twenty-eight in Somalia, I was ten-years-old. An outpouring of support came from across the country as the national news covered what became known as the Battle of Mogadishu or Black Hawk Down. How unlike childhood it all was, as my family got out their aged, solemn faces and gathered in Fort Bragg for the funeral. My uncle then became an unstoppable memory at twenty-eight. His photos are stuck in time and line the walls of his sister’s houses and many of my cousins’. As I grew older, he kept looking younger until that year I turned twenty-eight as well and I stood in my parents’ house and looked him in the eyes.
We were silent as we crossed a great void:
Here is love,
And here is death,
And between the two,
But a breath.
My sister, Angela, says it’s funny I should ask her, because she had recently completed her yearly assessment for the military and last year it said she graded at an age of thirty. She’s forty-one now. “So what did it tell you this year?” She laughs and says, “Forty-six.” “Forty-Six! You could have thrown away the results and rode that thirty for years,” I tell her, but then she says how she feels forty-six now. She just moved to a new house, her joints are starting to hurt for the first time, she’s not exercising as much, and as also noted by my friend Al, the turning wheel of age in the military becomes more apparent with each new soldier who walks through the doors. My sister is a recruiter for the Army National Guard, and while she can relate to the commonalities the job provides, she says the age difference makes her feel older. Forty-six, and born forty-one years ago, like the brackets of the soul are loose.
My sister stops to tell me about one of the soldiers she works with. When he was in his early twenties, he met a woman in her mid-thirties and they got involved. The relationship was great for both of them, because he got the older and experienced woman and she got the hot young thing to make her feel young again. They got married, but now that soldier is in his mid-thirties and the woman is almost fifty. They’re getting a divorce, from each other but also from the reality that settled in.
I tell my friend Al the story about the soldier and the older woman, because Al once told me in passing about an interest in that kind of relationship. Now at thirty-three, and having been spared that outcome, he has a good laugh.
“For the majority of my twenties,” Al says, “I felt like a grown-ass child.” But he says it’s a different story now, and he doesn’t really know how to gauge that beyond the obvious of thirty-three. He admits to being a cocky enlistee when he first joined the Air Force Reserves. He would hear old guys talking, and he’d say, “In 1996, I was in sixth grade. Where were you?” They would hand over a stereotypical response between irritated and angered and tell him, “In 1996 we were getting fucking shot at in Iraq.” But now he’s the old guy, he says.
Al and I move in another direction and talk about how different the internet was when we were teenagers, and seeing the change that has taken place has given us a gauge of passing time. Back then we felt the internet was a communication revolution, especially for those outside of the mainstream. We both met people through AOL instant messenger, and met with little more than a profile and some agreeable conversation. But then the walls were brought up with the years. From beneath our feet, the perceived revolution was replaced with the digitalization of shopping malls and the depth of our parents’ chain emails spread as commonplace internet news and philosophy. The physical moves in our daily lives away from the screen to more refined areas of life and socialization became the bundled profiles we’re targeted as on the screen. It’s possible the internet didn’t change its communicative opportunities, and maybe the perceived revolution had more to do with the openness, or maybe even carelessness, of our stages of life than we once gave it credit for. It’s possible we built up our stories in response as we rationalized our behavior differences, both then and now.
“I don’t think of age as a bad thing, though,” Al says. “I’m more inclined to think being young is bad.”
People feel older when the doorman at the bar doesn’t card them anymore. “When did that happen?” they say.
People feel older when those small social cues taken for granted in youth then become the disinterested silence of just another encounter.
People say “old friend” but not “young friend.”
People tie the dual nature of age to their pets to rationalize the pets’ mortality, too. Well, this is how old he is in people years.
In the Robin Williams’ movie What Dreams May Come, those who died and went to Heaven would pick the identity of a person who they felt to be. Commonly, that person was a different age: a set of physical manifestations that can better tie into the individual story.
My friend, Karla, is thirty-two, but she feels around her mom’s age of fifty-four. Karla is the mother of three children, and she’s been having hip problems for several years now. “It popped out again,” she tells me on a regular basis.
“And how old does your mom feel?” I say to Karla. She says, “My mom feels around eighty, but my gram, who is eighty, feels like she’s fifty.” One major difference between her grandma and everyone else I interviewed is the devout nature of her everyday experience – leave it up to God to knock a few decades off despite mounting medical bills. “Do you ever have younger days?” I say to Karla. “Not as many as I feel old.”
But Karla tells me when we’re two days older, “You know, I do have times when I feel younger. I noticed when I drink I feel fifteen, and I start listening to the same music as I did back then.” I think about this and ask how old BJ, her fiancé, feel when he drinks. She goes off to ask him. “He says he feels like he’s twenty even though he’s thirty-nine, but then the next day he feels sixty because of how his body crashes. He also says he felt younger his entire life because people always told him he looks younger.”
“So, wait,” I say to Karla. “When you drink, you’re fifteen, and when he drinks, he’s twenty?” “Yeah?” she says. “Should anything happen, I hope you two sober up a little bit to make it legal first.” Don’t want anyone to get arrested abstractly.
After calling my Aunt Sharon, the oldest at fifty-eight right behind my mother, I show up to my Uncle Al’s eighteen’s birthday party. If I found one sure thing from these interviews, it’s that I can confuse people on the spot if I start referring to others with their abstract age.
I take my uncle a bottle of rum and we share birthday dinner and conversation, and then I become best friends with their beagle, I think because the beagle can feel how old I am. All dogs are like that for me. My aunt says she feels younger, because like Karla’s fiancé, people tell her she looks younger, and like Karla’s grandma, she leaves things in God’s hands. My aunt also abides by simple philosophies: She says to let things go and move on. She says everything happens for a reason. “Life is just about being happy…. Everyone deserves happiness.”
“Life is an adventure,” my Uncle Al says. He’s really fifty-six, or fifty-eight – I can remember which one, but if I’m wrong with the former then wait for it. My aunt and uncle sit beside each other on the couch after dinner. My uncle has a good sense of humor, he likes to drink rum, and despite being forced out of work due to physical ailments, he and my aunt share the dream of getting their house ready to sell and then living out their days on a sail boat and traveling the sea. They show me their YouTube subscriptions of other people already living the dream. Unlike my parents’ plan to move to Florida, my aunt and uncle seem to already have their feet part ways in the boat, or at least they present it that way. They’ve already begun floating with the easygoing current of the ocean belonging to that of an ideal summer day.
My step-father, Jim, scoffs when I tell him other people feel like a teenager inside, or even that some people feel a couple years younger. He’s sixty-nine, and he says he feels sixty-nine. After almost dying in unnamed accidents when he was a teenager, after two tours of Vietnam, and after marrying a woman who already had three children, he feels his age. He adds, though, that when he was in the military, he was twenty-one, and most of those around him were eighteen or nineteen. He felt old because of that. It made me remember the huge gap of small age differences pertaining to all the years school.
Like I do at my place, my friend Nick surrounds himself with books and all the work he put in since completing his degree. He’s thirty-two and he says feels younger behaviorally, but intellectually he feels older. I talk to him as he’s getting ready to leave for the night and share the loss of another one of his friends, and so we don’t talk long. But I note how Nick, Karla, and I have known each other for more than half our lives. For each of us, though, that’s a different number in the abstractions we carry and how we’re framing it at any given moment.
With one last phone call, I find that my friend Ian, thirty-three, says he feels immature to what he calls the norms of society. He tells me he’s trying to figure out when he used to do drugs, because he thinks he stopped emotional development and coping skills around that age. “Twenty-one,” he says, but then as we continue our conversation, he keeps mentioning “these kids” where he’s working as a security officer. “Where exactly are you working?” I say. “The technology center at the community college.” The kids, who are the same age he feels, call him “Sir.”
And the stories continue to come my way. It’s the age of ages. People who I ask then ask other people. Most never saw it as a concept to question. So I let the words simmer, and for a few days I don’t feel like one of the oldest people on Earth anymore. Getting to hear others’ stories, I become thirty-three. I still move the same way. I’m still prone to the same bouts of physical and mental struggles, but I’m thirty-three. But then with the stories also come the reactions to the stories.
I find most do not believe in the foundation of abstract reasoning outside of oneself. The tendency is to pull other people’s lives through the filter of one’s own:
“Yeah, right. He feels eighteen? He just got on disability.”
“What do you have to feel old for? You’re young and your whole life is ahead of you.”
Most did not believe in what other people felt at their core, or the reasons for why they felt that way, and yet so many people can live side by side with varying life philosophies and outlooks while still operating as a functional society. That’s worth being grateful for. That’s worth understanding the importance of empathy.
Of course I had a small sample size and the variables were too numerous to keep track of. The variables, in that way, were understood to be a part of the question “How old do you feel?” Everyone comes at it from a different angle, as they would if asked, “Where’s your favorite place to think?” But no matter how I try to shift around the approach, there does seem to be a fundamental difference in outlook between most people and those who can stand in front of the mirror and feel displaced from several decades – or almost a whole lifetime.
The details of one approach read like a high school history text going right for the war. The other is poetry about the flicker of life. Only sometimes does the first group see the poetry, as do the latter group, who sometimes go for war.
An overcast day seeps in through my apartment windows. The only thing stopping the dreariness from further seeping into my bones is the thin layer of plastic I have up to keep out the cold. My back pulls to one side because of a lingering muscle injury, causing me to lean slightly to my left. My knee cracks like an extension of the floorboards I walk on from my bed to my morning coffee. I sit down, and I’m alone with my depression, and I’ll likely always be alone with my depression. This is circumstance, this is choice, and this is rationalization wearing its disguise.
The day plays out like a funeral march of hours in my head – I pop my pill bottle and take my Bupropion. The day plays out like a regular march of hours in my head, and it brings forth a cascade of thought that is no stranger to one of the oldest people on Earth. Here I am again, no longer thirty-three. Heaviness follows as the number is abstract, the life attached is the living pattern attached, combined and set forth with a loosely tied-together narrative we call the self. It really is an ageless tale.
How old do you feel?
~Matthew R Moore
April 24th 2017